Switchback: Talking Tech

Jun 20, 2014

The Switch team talked about gadgets, tech and tech policy in their weekly chat. The Switch team 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.

Hello friends! Let's do this thing:

How will its appstore work? Will apps be charged to your amazon account?

Yep. Amazon has its own app store already that it uses for the Kindle Fire line. It's basically the Android store, but curated, and the payment comes through your Android account.

T-Mobile recently followed AT&T's lead in adopting a sponsored data plan for its wireless subscribers, whereby certain data delivered over their networks doesn't count against the subscribers' monthly data allowances. T-Mobile is doing this just for music, by allowing any music streaming service to register under its program--without cost--and deliver "free" music streaming data to consumers. This sort of behavior is arguably the sort of "discrimination" (a.k.a. paid prioritization) that Net Neutrality proponents so adamantly oppose, and yet it seems like a boon for T-Mobile subscribers who like to stream music from their devices. Is there anything really to fear from these sorts of sponsored data plans? Is there any need for the FCC to impose rules to ban these sorts of arrangements ex ante?

Good question. As of right now, there's little to think that T-Mobile's (or AT&T's) new plans will be implicated by the net neutrality rules. There's historically been a bright line separating wireless and wireline businesses when it comes to net neutrality; in the 2010 rules, the FCC gave the wireless companies a pass. 

The prospect of ex ante regulations here seems remote; for sponsored data plans to run afoul of net neutrality, net neutrality needs to be applied to wireless companies first. 

I don't get it. Being more compatible with Amazon.com is not a big selling point nor is the 3D mapping thing. I assume it has few apps. Is the working theory that you just have to start somewhere?

I don't claim to be a business genius, but I do think that's the general thrust of it.

If you're going to succeed in mobile commerce, you need to be in smartphones. That's pretty much the bottom line.

(At this point, we'd like to remind you that Amazon.com and The Washington Post have the same owner, Jeff Bezos.)

The Fire Phone has it own unique features, which could attract a set of people who are maybe sick of their current phones and ready for a change. Amazon may not be expecting a hit right away, just a toe in the door.

Does every state have the ability to stop mergers like that? Do they ever use those powers?

For folks just coming to this story, New York's public service commission last night held a hearing to consider the Comcast-TWC merger. If it rules against the deal, it could block the merger within the state of New York.

Every state is different. From what I understand, if a company has assets in a state that have been subject to a public service commission's regulations before, then the PSC likely has some authority to conduct merger oversight.

According to the net neutrality scholar Tim Wu, states have historically had a "co-equal" role in merger approvals with the federal government. Big states with robust public service commissions, like New York, may be more likely to take an active role in investigating mergers than others, though.

By releasing the Fire Phone, is Amazon trying to compete with Apple (in that an iPad communicates with your iPhone or MacBook and makes everything super easy), or does it have bigger plans? It started as an online bookstore, moved to general e-commerce, became a go-to online marketplace, and is now shifting into tech. What's the long-term goal, and what might it be in a decade?

Now that's a really excellent question. Again, I don't have a crystal ball on this, but I think that all of their moves still reflect that desire to be the predominant retail outlet in the world. A literal one-stop shop.

The move into gadgetry is still opening up pipes directly into its store. In a decade, I'd expect us to be able to buy anything from Amazon no matter where we are. 

One question I asked on Twitter yesterday — and I still don't have a good sense of, yet — is whether having the phone send you to Amazon after you've scanned a product with Firefly is tantamount to what Google has been accused of (favoring its own products in search), or what Microsoft was accused of way back when it basically tried to get everyone to use Internet Explorer.

For all of you SCOTUS-watchers out there, I'd love to get your take on yesterday's software patent ruling. The court ruled that you can't simply make an abstract idea patentable by claiming you've done it on a computer. Will this help limit patent trolling, do you think?

My computer keeps kicking me out of chat, so I inadvertently locked up a post I was answering. I'm reposting, and then answering it!:

I'd like to apologize to Hayley for the e-mail I sent her last night regarding her article about VPNs in Iraq. However, I do think it's a sticky issue. We are taught to believe all Internet censorship is bad, but it's a very violent situation where a terrorist group is using social media to communicate. I do see the Iraqi gov't side of it.

First, never apologize for sending in thoughtful comments! I really like hearing from readers-- it's the best part of the job.

I agree that it's a complicated issue, and one that requires some nuanced discussion. I thought that the use numbers in Iraq for VPN apps was interesting, though, as was the fact that the same company sees a spike with each wave of dissent around the world. I approached it from a "free flow of information is good" point of view, but it is always worth remembering that those doors can be used by anyone. Thanks for the comment.

To your SCOTUS question, Brian, I only have more questions now.  What are people who actually understand patents saying about it?

A lot of people seem to be shrugging on this one. The Court issued a narrow ruling that dealt with the basic question in the case — whether you can patent an abstract idea just by saying "do it on a computer" — but it didn't resolve the larger question of what software can be patented.

For more, check out this story I just filed a few minutes ago.

So apparently the House amended the DoD appropriations bill last night to defund a portion of the NSA related to engineering vulnerabilities. There was also some restriction on the use of funds to access American's communications under Section 702. What does this mean (a) in itself and (b) for thepolitics of the USA Freedom Act which is now in the Senate? Other thoughts?

Like other riders, there's always the chance it could get stripped out at a later date — so reform advocates probably will be waiting to celebrate. At the same time, some are also cheering the symbolic nature of the amendment, because it shows the anti-NSA caucus is still active despite the USA Freedom Act  passing the House.

As with most NSA reform proposals, however, this one will have trouble making it past the Senate, where the agency has many powerful defenders.

It seems like the argument is the same one you often hear for why someone should choose iPhone or Android. Your life is on Apple devices (music/video on iTunes, Macs at home, backed up on Apple's cloud), go iPhone. Your life is on Google (Google Play, gmail, Google Drive) go Android. With Amazon already in commerce and video and making a play for music, seems like the logic is the same for why someone might go with an Amazon device.

Exactly right. And what company wouldn't want to have that sort of consumer lock-in? Amazon has particular incentive because they sell so many more things, and so it totally makes sense that they would want to add a phone to that mix.

What I'm not clear on, yet, is how many people will actually jump ship to Amazon's phone. I'll know more when we get our hands on one....

With so many people already committed to one ecosystem or another, though, it's an open question as to how successful Amazon will be at stealing away Apple's and Google's customers. I'm ultimately skeptical that Amazon's kind of ordinary device will really convert many people, especially considering Amazon's ecosystem isn't the market's strongest.

A) Whatever it takes to stop this confluence-of-evil-to-form-an-even-bigger-evil. B) It's going to be interesting if this works, and people who are generally opposed to "states' rights" come to understand the value of a federal system.

The "states' rights" perspective is intriguing. What do the rest of you on this chat think? 

What didn't make it into the full version of the LeVar Burton interview?

So many things! Mostly just asides and me going on about watching Reading Rainbow as a kid, and him talking about how great his fans are.

But we also talked about a lot the Common Core and how reading is taught in schools -- we'll actually have that part of the interview up in Sunday's paper. He did have this great thing where he pointed out that Reading Rainbow, with its focus on field trips and ties to the real world was "common core before Common Core was common core." 

Also, his laugh. He has the world's greatest laugh.

Wouldn't it behoove Amazon to make all Amazon apps compatible with digital downloads? For whatever reason, I can't buy Kindle books off of the Amazon app. I get "This application does not support purchasing digital content." I used to love Amazon. Some of their policies have me scratching my head.

Well, that actually gets to what may be one motivation for them to do this sort of thing. I'm guessing you have an iDevice, and Apple is the one that doesn't allow for Amazon apps to be a direct purchasing tool from the phone. 

If they can control those policies and make your phone the way to buy everything, that makes it a valuable tool for them.

It has been the topic of the week (well, until YO came along anyway). So, which new emoji most accurately represents you and your emotions?

The Vulcan salute, of course. 

What are the latest rumors on Google Nexus phones? I'm trying to decide whether to buy a Nexus 5 phone, or wait to see if Google comes out with a Nexus 6 this fall. I know there have been some rumors that Google will drop the Nexus line in favor of a new program that will sell phones through phone company dealers. I doubt that the prices will be as low as the prices Google charges for the Nexus line now, which won't be great for consumers.

Well, the latest rumors -- as you so neatly point out -- are that the Nexus line is kaput, in favor of a program called Android Silver with phones from Google and other phone makers. We might get a range of prices that way, though I agree that it probably won't be as great for customers, especially enthusiasts who like that unadulterated Android experience.

I'd at least wait until next week to get a new phone, though since Google will almost certainly answer your question at its annual I/O developers conference, June 25 and 26.

Kindle app purchases go through your Amazon account, not your Android/Google account.

Yes. Sorry. That's what I meant. Thinking of too many things at once. Through your Amazon account.

I don't even know what to ask. WTF might cover it. This is in the same vein for me as normcore in terms of the degree to which I understand what is happening.

I'm with you. The guy who invested $1 million in Yo had to have been doing it ironically. 

Me too! It makes me feel super old, actually. 

I was sort of obstinately not covering it because I just didn't want to point out how weird it was that an idea like that could raise $1 million. 

Also, now they've been hacked

Okay, time for a break. What's everyone having for lunch?

Diane Von Furstenburg's Google Glass line: yea or nay?? What if it's just mathematically impossible to make this thing look cool?

 I mean....it's no secret that I have my reservations about Glass. 

But I do think that it looks *better* with frames, and I honestly do believe that if they can get the usability up to a good point, it has a shot at going mainstream. It's smart to get designers on board.

That said, I personally just don't see it yet. I'm willing to be surprised.

What do you think this is? Instagram?

Brian's just asking because he's about to head to lunch himself. It's just me in the back 15, guys, so be patient. (Andrea, we're sorry to say, is under the weather.)

Just kidding! My lunch got cancelled, so I'm sticking around.

What is that emoji that looks like a dragon tail protruding from a fluffy cloud???

I think it's a lightning bolt. I haven't gotten to review all the new emoji, but I hear there's a rolled-up newspaper. I like that just 'cause.

Fun fact: Hayley reads the print copy of the Washington Post every day. 

I do have an iPhone. But I'm not about to switch over to an Amazon phone for that one reason. If the bottom line is money, wouldn't it just make sense to sell the books off the app?

It would, but they aren't allowed to, basically. Apple won't let them. It was actually one of the sticking points in Apple's DOJ case, that they were limiting that sort of thing.

Does @superwuster have a chance? Is this a stunt or is he serious?

You mean in his race for lieutenant governor? We'll see. The power of incumbency is strong, and Cuomo is a big incumbent. New York is as good a place as any for someone to run as a progressive, though. 

By the way, once you're done reading my interview with Wu, Vox also has a good one, too.

At what other websites can one listen to music?

There are a lot, actually. In addition to your big sites -- Pandora, Spotify, etc. -- I really like rdio, personally. Their playlists and recommendations are pretty spot-on, in my experience.

To answer Brian's lunch question, I'm thinking I'll actually go and eat away from my desk today. So that'll be nice. 

Yes! This is a trend I'm trying to promote. Don't eat sad desk lunch.

Friday food trucks or bust.

What's your favorite? 

Taking into consideration the lower than usual resolution and processing power, would this be worth it or should folks go with the more powerful and smaller mac mini with an external monitor?

People hate it when I say this about recommendations, but it really depends on what you want to do. A low-powered, lower cost all in one is nice for basic home and business use. But if you want to do anything that requires more power -- especially anything video -- then it's not for you.

I tend to max out on power when I can. How often do you buy a computer? May as well try to get as much as you can, especially since Macs are getting less and less upgradable.

If could like, favorite or +1 that response, Brian, I would.

Just a few minutes left! Get your questions in for a lightning round.

Fav food truck = Carnivore BBQ, which is typically at Farragut Square on Fridays. Not for vegetarians.

Wait so we're having a reader meetup at a food truck today is that what I'm hearing?

We should totally do that someday! Not today, though. I don't have cash.

I'm game! Hayley, I could probably cover you.


It's happening. The northeast corner of Farragut Square, in like, 15 minutes. Who's in?

Awesome. Brian is the best, guys.

On that note...believe it or not, we're out of time. We'll see you next week.

If you still have a burning, unanswered question, submit it for next week's show here: http://wapo.st/1pQaa5c

In This Chat
Brian Fung
Andrea Peterson
Hayley Tsukayama
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