Switchback: Talking Tech

Apr 25, 2014

The Switch team talked about gadgets, tech and tech policy in their weekly chat. Hayley Tsukayama, Brian Fung and Andrea Peterson took questions about the gadgets you have, the ones you want and the ones that aren't even out yet, as well as how the biggest tech stories affect you.

The whole team is here, hit us with your best shot!

What should I, as a consumer, pay attention to in the proposed FCC internet rules? How strictly will the FCC police whether the "fast lanes" providers may set up are truly available to any business? Will this amount to a price cap to make sure smaller businesses have access to the fast lanes as well as the big ones?

Right now things are still pretty hazy — the proposal still has to be deliberated on by the commission before we even see the document. Then the public will have a chance to comment on it before the rules are finalized. So it's important to remember that nothing is certain yet.

That said, one thing to look closely at are the factors that go into determining "commercial reasonableness," or the test the FCC will use to regulate the fast-lane deals. Having a lot of criteria isn't necessarily a good thing; as net neutrality advocate Marvin Ammori points out, it could let lawyers run circles around the FCC.

What's the realistic future for net neutrality with this new FCC proposal? Best case scenario... worst case scenario. Is the public involved enough?

Best-case scenario: The FCC designs a rigorous test for commercial reasonableness that is easily enforceable. 

Worst-case scenario: ISPs are effectively allowed to game the system, raise prices on both consumers and Internet companies (the latter of which could also pass those costs onto you) and small companies can't afford to pay for a fast lane.

What do you think Elon Mosk is going to announce this afternoon?

Most of the speculation I've seen has had to do with Mars. It's a big focus for him.

First contact, obviously. 

Do I swap it up for the S5?

Good question! The S5 is a great phone, but there are really only two reasons to run out and upgrade from an S4, in my opinion.

1) If your S4 is broken, or otherwise annoying to use and you desparately need an upgrade.

2) If you have a bad habit of dropping your phone in puddles, sinks or toilets. Because the S5 is water-resistant, so it can survive total immersion in water. (Not that you should make a habit of it.)

Overall, the S5 is a great phone, and arguably a much more polished package at launch than any of its predecessors. But there's nothing about it that should make you run out and get it right this second.

I hope you are unable to solve the Kirk v. Picard debate because you don't want to piss off all the people who are clearly wrong when you rule in favor of Kirk.

This is a tough one. If you imagine Kirk and Picard as reflections of social America, I see lots of things to admire in Picard that don't necessarily appear in TOS. Picard strikes me as a more thoughtful, measured leader than Kirk. But that's in part because Picard lacks the foil that Kirk had in Spock. And I think seeing the Kirk-Spock relationship play out as a more explicit expression of "impulsiveness versus logic" was a good thing for the TOS era. TNG aired at a time when politics was much more complex, and I appreciate that Picard reflected that to some extent. Long answer to an unanswerable question, I know. Sorry.

Are any of you watching HBO's Silicon Valley? It felt to me like a pitch perfect portrayal of some of the quirks of the tech world - and the people in it (plus it has Kumail Nanjiani! But no women except for the one token hot one ... so, there's that). Anyone watching it? Thoughts so far?

So, I watched the first episode then priorited rewatching Battlestar Galactica. I agree that it has a pulse on some of the social dynamics at play in the tech scene, but couldn't get over the same gender issue you pointed out -- and honestly, I just felt bad for most of the characters more than I liked them. It's just my taste in humor, I have the same problem with Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But I'll probably binge on it in a few months, and I'll be keeping an eye on Alyssa Rosenberg's blog to see if/how they approach the women in tech later on. It would be nice to see them do at least a subplot about a Tech Lady Mafia type group or even try to tackle something akin to the Github situation -- although might all be tricky. 

I haven't watched it yet, as I don't have HBO. But I'd love to find out what you think so far. If you have any thoughts, submit it as a separate question!

I saw on reddit a Brit asking why Americans hate Comcast so much. A lot of the explanations were spot on, but also sounded exactly like the experiences I've had with Verizon (which I use now) and Optimum (which I had before) Are we right to hate Comcast? Are they worse than other providers or is everyone equally bad? ... Also, help me understand what is happening with Netflix right now. I thought they recently signed a deal to give Comcast customers better streaming. So why is Netflix suddenly at odds with them?

Netflix may have signed a deal with Comcast for better streaming speeds, but it doesn't have to like it. Netflix argues that Comcast is simply charging Netflix for access to its customers because it can. Unfortunately, we don't really know who got the better deal here, because the terms of the agreement aren't public. One thing the FCC could do with its new net neutrality rules is enforce greater transparency when it comes to these private arrangements.

As far as Comcast's reputation in the United States — I'll let company exec David Cohen speak for himself.

Re: Yesterday's piece on the human cost of bad technology in the 911 system. What's the answer? How can this be fixed? When?

The FCC has some proposed regulations being worked out right now that would impose stricter requirements on wireless carriers. Unsurprisingly, the carriers find this costly. But if the rules are implemented, then within five years 911 dispatchers will be able to receive more detailed location data that's accurate to within about 50 meters in the horizontal axis, and within a few meters in the vertical axis (meaning they'll know which floor of a building you're on). 

Robert Scoble's revelation that maybe people think it's "creepy and weird" when they see other people walking around wearing Google Glass ... is it seriously the first time he is realizing this? YES, ROBERT. THIS. This is the exact problem people have with Google Glass! - http://www.buzzfeed.com/charliewarzel/google-glass-just-lost-its-biggest-cheerleader

From the time I've spent playing with Google Glass, and I can confirm that people's first reaction to the thing is to recoil at this thing you have your face. Lots of people get over it pretty quickly, especially if they love gadgets. But everyone pulls a face first.

To paraphrase Scoble, I do think that Glass lacks a certain empathy as a device. It's hard, even when you're wearing it and aware of how weird it looks, to get a good read on just how disengaged you seem from the person you're talking to or passing on the street. As they refine it, I think they can make it better -- with better frames, etc. -- but that's  a big hurdle to overcome.

The thing I've always said about Glass is that people will eventually get over how weird it looks. Not because we'll get used to Glass as it looks today, but because Glass itself will change. You already hear about how Google's working with Warby Parker and other designers to develop Glass-enabled eyeglasses that look totally normal. And the company is also working on smart contact lenses, so someday you won't even need to see Glass plastered on someone's face. Aesthetics aren't really the problem, in my view. But the ethical and legal issues totally are.

What's your take on the shake-ups at Google+? Does this mean Google will finally stop pestering us about it?

Google+ was Vic's baby, so I can't imagine his departure means good things for the platform. But more comprehensive user profiles are better for Google's business model. Even if the social features of Google+ haven't caught on en masse, between Google+, Chrome, and Android, the company has successfully converted a lot of disparate services into one universal login and a lot of casual users into logged in users spanning multiple platforms. 

I'd argue Google has already stopped pestering people about Plus and simply started integrating it as a fait accompli in many of its services. It just took over Gchat one day, and YouTube comments the next. I think we'll probably see more of that.

I just Netflxed the old BSG series and got bizarrely into it. It has an amazingly intriguing way of setting up scenarios that are deep and intense and feel like they should be in the new series and then ruining them with stupid comedy robots or something.

I have an embarassing admission: I haven't watched all of the old series. But this really makes me want to watch it in tandem with the remake. There isn't a pudgy Apollo, is there? 

If you had to guess, what product do you think Apple will come out with next? A TV kind of thing? Something wearable?

Always hard to know with Apple, but if you held my feet to the fire, I'd probably guess that their next thing will be a payments system. That's not at all sexy, but it makes sense given that Tim Cook just announced that they've hit 800 million iTunes account, and they're sitting on a dragon's hoard of payment data that they never use.

Product wise, I do think the chances of a full-fledged television set are getting slimmer, especially given that Apple TV is now officially not a hobby.

As for wearables, Cook's clearly telegraphed interest there, but they're Apple, and so they're going to wait until they can get it perfect. And perfection takes time.

As anyone who has been a customer of Comcast can attest, part of what makes them so horrible is that their customer service is terrible. I mean, they frustrated a little old lady so bad that she took a HAMMER to their computers at their customer service office. When you're even hated by grandmas, that's saying something.

My wife often has her iPhone 4S in her purse and I am considering purchasing for her a Pebble Steel for an anniversary gift. Is that a good idea or should I wait for Apple to come out with an 'iWatch?'

Pebble Steel is a strong product, but it's not quite all there. It's nice to get alerts and it's fun to play around with, but it's not a totally seamless, easy experience.

If your wife is all about the early adoption, then I say go for it -- Apple's probably going to take a while to come out with their version, because there are a lot of engineering problems to work out for wearables-- battery life vs. clunkiness being the biggest.

Then again, they're Apple, so I should probably disclaim here that they're consistently full of surprises and could release earlier than that. But it's almost certainly not going to come at, say, WWDC in June.

No pudgy Apollo, sorry. BUT an amazing sporting event that appears to have no rules other than that the guys wear skimpy diaper outfits while they play. And Apollo's abs are on point.

I just "borrowed" HBO Go, so whole new worlds opened up for me. My opinion is that it's totally pitch perfect in its send up of some of the pretensions in the tech world. Some of the things people say that no human would ever say in any other context. The way people sell their products with vague statements about saving the world - through improving the algorithm for ranking heuristics (or whatever - I forget what heuristics even means). And there's a scene where someone is driving the tiniest car I've ever seen that made me snort out loud. That said, the lack of women is disturbing and not all the characters work - T.J. Miller as the obnoxious lazy one was meh for me. Anyway, I definitely recommend it - you'll get at least a few solid laughs for sure.

I wonder if the lack of women is at all intentionally representative of Silicon Valley as it actually is.

I'm sure everyone was initially weirded out by people walking around talking to themselves with Bluetooth headsets when they first came out, too. Eventually people accepted or at least were aware that the person that appears to be muttering to him or herself walking down the street is actually talking on a wireless headset. I'm sure Google Glass and other wearable tech will have a similar acceptance.

You make a good point, though I'm not totally sure that bluetooth headsets even really have what you'd call "acceptance." You can't tell me that when you're talking to someone and they keep their bluetooth in that you're not a little annoyed, can you?

That said, I think Glass has real potential, and I've found in my tests with it that you can get around the whole "you have a screen on your face" thing by putting them up on your head when you're not actively using them.  The people who currently have Glass, particularly the developers, are doing a great job of testing those etiquette waters now. But not everyone who buys one in a full release (whenever that will be) will be as willing to be an ambassador for the tech.

I'm not declaring it a dead product, but it has a huge uphill battle.

I don't understand net neutrality. Can you please explain it to me in the context of Lord of The Rings?

I feel like there has to be a solid palantir analogy in here somewhere. We'll try to work on that...

Maybe the palantirs are digital infrastructure, and those with control of them are internet service providers, controlling the flow of information throughout middle earth? Yeah, this isn't quite working. But if you want your Tolkien to be infused with science and technical advances and think Sauron may have gotten a bad rap, I thoroughly recommend reading reading The Last Ringbearer -- an alternative history told from the perspective of a Mordor on the verge of industrial progress. 

You're welcome.

Hadn't there always been a shadow peering war even with the old neutrality language in place? How do the new guidelines change the game? It seems only the big players (YouTube, Netflix, etc.) would be affected--the same outfits that have struggled to get last-mile providers to accommodate their fat pipes. Would it really be cost effective to charge, say, newspapers for faster guaranteed delivery? What would the difference even be, and would it be measured in seconds? Milliseconds?

You're right that paid peering is an old idea. The fear among net neutrality advocates is more that small companies will be hurt in trying to do the last-mile connection, not in the Internet's backbone. 

With gigabit connections, the fast-lane could be set at practically any speed. 

Despite some great press for the Original Google world-changer, it seems like glass isn't going to be the next-big-thing after all. Everyone seems focused on the negative aspects of the device which has me wondering: Can anyone explain why they didn't see this coming? Obviously, with the amount of money poured into this tech, you'd think they'd have understood the social implications. I don't understand how they could be so tone-deaf to the reality that most people don't like to be filmed. Now, with the reaction being as harsh as it has become - do you think the glass is salvageable? Or is it time for them to move on?

I don't think it's that Google lacks empathy, necessarily, but I think they (and a lot of tech companies) get wrapped in the beauty of what engineering can do to solve big problems.

The argument is that it's just as easy to film someone with a phone without their knowledge as it is to film with Glass. Where I think they did stumble a bit is in realizing that there's a very clear physical cue when someone is filming with a smartphone -- something you don't get with Glass. Really, they need to just make it super-clear when Glass is filiming -- some sort of signal that lets people tell at a glance.

And, to be fair, I think they did see this coming -- they did a huge charm offensive about the things, and the whole point of the limited rollout was basically to get it in the hands of people who had bought into the idea and were willing to explain it. They didn't just release it into the wild; that should count for something.

If I belong to one of those three cable companies, how long will it be before I can go to channel one and, with my devices, get Netflix there?

I assume you're referring to this article. The offer goes live on Monday, provided you meet all of the conditions:

1. You subscribe to Netflix.

2. You subscribe to RCN, Grande or Atlantic.

3. You have an RCN, Grande or Atlantic-provided TiVo box.

Any chance that the White House will back clean legislation to require a warrant for search of electronic communications? Or will he cave to the bogus arguments of SEC and other administrative agencies that actually, you know, observing the 4th Amendment will result in regulatory collapse?

I'm keeping my ear to the ground, but don't have news to report yet. (Otherwise, I would have written it, right?) 

I do think ECPA a most useful case studies in one of the big issues around tech: The distance between real usage and statutes on the books. Like in many areas, there's a big gap between how people use e-mail now and how it was used when the law was written all the way back in 1986. And it just so happens, that gap means that law enforcement can potentially have much greater access to e-mail without a warrant than most people realize.

I think the place to look on ECPA reform isn't in Washington. It's in the states. I've written about this a little bit; many state legislatures such as Texas have done a lot to explore improving e-mail privacy and text message privacy. I'm pretty sure that with Congress deadlocked on most things at least until the election if not beyond, it's the lower governments that'll be doing much of the lifting here.

Do you have any insight into Apple's next-generation iPhone6 release date and must-have technology? Thank you!

Ugh. I wish!

I'll say this: since Cook took over, Apple pretty consistently releases new phones in the fall, and that seems to be their favorite timeline at the moment.

From the people I've spoken to, it does seem like there are definite signs that Apple's at least testing larger screens for the iPhone, since people are watching a ridiculous amount of smartphone video.

But really -- and I can't stress this enough -- take all Apple rumors with a shaker of salt.

Hi Brian, I was hoping you could help me wrap my head around something. I work in networking and because of my background I think I might be looking at the issue to granularly. The way I see it the segregation of different datatypes is requisite in network management, and the discrimination of traffic based on the sender at the ISP level is bad news for everybody. What I don't understand, is whether the current net neutrality FCC rules are about, network management or anticompetitive business practices?

The FCC has always said that ISPs should be free to set their own network management policies so long as they're reasonable. But the proposed rules aim to address business relationships that could have downstream effects on consumers. I'm not sure if I answered your question effectively. Hit me back if I can offer anything else.

Where are we at with that? After the initial panic it kind of disappeared from the headlines. What's the latest in the aftermath?

Some big companies are now getting behind open source security projects like OpenSSL. Better late than never!

For more years than I want to admit I've come up with idea after idea, mostly ones that would change the internet, like my suggestion twenty years ago to Microsoft about what today we call the "cloud". I have tried to contact everyone from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs and never got anywhere. Why are these formally innovative companies now so closed off?

In a word? Money.

Both Apple and Microsoft have made their fortunes on maintaining closed platforms, and they're really focused on building and fortifying those platforms to keep the cash flowing.

But the reason that they're so locked down is because there are always companies trying to disrupt them -- so I'd say that if you can't join 'em, beat 'em.

The rumors of Google+'s death have been greatly exaggerated: http://www.amandablain.com/google-plus-ghost-town/

I don't think we were saying it's dead, but I think that Google's strategy on it has shifted, which may be why it was a good time for Gundrota to move on.

Frankly, they aren't going to rival Facebook. They just aren't. But they're making all moves to bake it into other Google products and morph it into that background service that Andrea and Brian were talking about earlier.

Really? This person invented the cloud? What other internet things did you invent? I came up with Facebook, but just never built it. So, you know, I'll always have that.

Oh, hush now. We like civility here at The Switch. To be fair, he only said he had an idea that was like "the cloud" before, he didn't claim to have actually invented it.

This is how rumors get started. Just ask Al Gore.

Most companies also have policies in place when it comes to considering or sharing unsolicited "ideas" or inventions from the public. In a nutshell, it can be a legal liability if someone thinks that Microsoft or Apple read their idea and eventually used some of the feature in a future product. For that reason, most unsolicited contact goes straight to the trash.

Good point.

Gundotra. Apologies to Vic for spelling his last name wrong up there. I'll assign myself lines later.

We've got about five minutes left! Get your final questions in while you can.

I was wondering if you all could give your opinions on the Aereo case and its implication for the future.


Actually, wouldn't the best case scenario be a huge public outcry about eliminating net neutrality, leading to Wheeler withdrawing his corporate welfare plan or even resigning in shame? Let's face it, "fast lanes" are not content-neutral, so let's stop calling Wheeler's idea to allow for yet another telecom cash-grab "net neutrality".

You're certainly not alone in being outraged. Tim Wu -- who coined the term "net neutrality" -- calls Wheeler's plan "net discrimination." He wasn't a fan of the FCC's last strategy either. 

If at this point you have not changed your passwords, is there still a danger relative to Heartbleed?

Oh, yeah. The whole reason to change your passwords is because people could have picked them up, lurking, at any time in the past couple of years.

Change is good! We know it's a pain, but it's for your own good. 

It's also a pretty good time to think about a password management service. Brian had some good suggestions here.

Thanks for joining us. We'll see you next week!

In This Chat
Brian Fung
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on electronic privacy, national security, digital politics and the Internet that binds it all together.
Andrea Peterson
Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
Hayley Tsukayama
Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for the Washington Post.
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