Geek News: Latest Technology, Product Reviews, Gadgets and Tech Podcast News for Geeks


The Verizon Refund Debacle

Posted by Alan at 5:00 PM on October 5, 2010

In case you missed the news yesterday and today, Verizon Wireless is refunding approximately $50 million to about 15 million of it’s wireless customers.  This stems from incorrect billing that the company did over the past few years.  In a statement posted to Verizon’s website they stated:

“We have addressed these issues to avoid unintended data charges in the future. … When we identify errors, we remedy them as quickly as possible.”

However, the FCC investigation into this is still ongoing.  According to FCC rep Michele Ellison:

“But questions remain as to why it took Verizon two years to reimburse its customers and why greater disclosure and other corrective actions did not come much, much sooner.”

The question still remains if the FCC will fine Verizon (Ellison did not rule that out).  They are still attempting to determine if Verizon “intentionally” charged a $1.99 per MB data charge to phones that did not have data plans.

Obviously the ramifications if Verizon was knowingly charging people for the data they didn’t use would be disastrous for the company.  At this point we can’t even speculate if that was the case, and honestly, we may never know.

But here’s what I do know.  I (and my wife and daughter) are Verizon Family Plan customers.  I have a smart phone and pay a $29.99 monthly data plan.  However, my wife and daughter do not have smart phones (they both the LG Cosmos).  My daughter just recently got her first phone so there has not been a problem with that, but my wife, periodically, over that past year or so noticed a data charge for her phone on our bill.  It wasn’t there every month, just a few times.  It usually ranged from $2-4.  A couple of times she called and inquired, but never got a satisfactory answer.  And, let’s face it, the charge was too small to put much effort into pursuing.

I can’t say that Verizon did this intentionally and I want to believe they didn’t because I really am happy with the service.  I can say that if I were going to set up a scam I would certainly think that billing a lot of people a little bit would be the best way to do it and not get noticed.  But that proves nothing.  I will withhold judgement and continue with our service with them.  But what I am a bit upset about is the settlement amount – between $2 and $6 per customer.  First, I have no idea how they have determined who the affected 15 million customers were and if we are even on the list.  Second, I calculated the total amount we were overcharged to be a good bit more than the refund that may be coming.  Granted it’s still a small amount of money, but it does leave a bit of a bad taste behind.


Amazon Kindle E-Books

Posted by tomwiles at 3:55 AM on July 27, 2010

Shortly after getting my HTC Evo phone, one of the initial apps I downloaded from the Android Marketplace was the Amazon Kindle app with the idea I’d probably check it out at some point. Weeks went by, and I pretty much ignored the app.

Yesterday I was talking to a good friend that is in the process of formatting e-books for an author friend of his, including formatting the books in the Kindle format. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to him once again that I needed check the Android Kindle app out. He pointed out that there were free e-books available in the Kindle format on the Amazon website, including many books from 1922 and before that were now in the public domain, so after I finished his call I went on Amazon.Com with my computer and started digging around in the Kindle Store area of Amazon. Sure enough, there seemed to be plenty of free e-books available, so I started adding them. To get the Kindle app on my phone to synch with my Amazon account couldn’t be easier, I simply entered in my email address and Amazon password into the app. Any books in my Amazon storage area are quickly updated to the app.

Sure, some of the free books weren’t exactly my taste, but I was able to open them on my phone and finally see how well the Kindle app worked. Hummm, not bad – not bad at all. To make a long story short, I ended up finding a current book I really liked and purchased it for $9.99.

What a pleasant surprise I was in for. Reading a Kindle book on my HTC Evo is actually a good experience. The text is quite legible. The surprising part is that twice now I’ve carried the phone with me into restaurants and was able to easily read using the phone while eating. Of course, the HTC Evo has a handy built-in kick stand that allows the phone to sit on its side at an angle. I can eat and then periodically lightly touch the right side of the screen in order to make the Kindle app advance to the next page. The Kindle app even synchs the latest page I’m on back to the server, so if I open the book up again either on my phone or on my laptop, it opens up right at the exact page where I stopped reading.

At this point I have no plans on buying an actual Kindle, however I suspect I will be buying more Kindle e-books in the future. I often carry my phone around with me wherever I go, and because of the way the Kindle app works across all Kindle apps associated with my account, I have instant access to every Kindle e-book in my Amazon account storage area on every associated Kindle installation. There are often times I end up having to cool my heels waiting on something, and it’s incredibly handy to be able to use that otherwise often wasted waiting time reading. Ten minutes here and twenty minutes there really do add up over time.

All of this talk about, “Oh, the iPad has killed the Kindle” is bogus. Amazon has been very smart to put Kindle apps out for as wide a variety of devices as possible. Even if they don’t sell that many Kindle readers, the Kindle format e-book is a huge Amazon win, both for Amazon and for consumers like me.

Does The Cloud Have A Dark Side?

Posted by tomwiles at 2:41 PM on July 25, 2010

Does The Cloud Have A Dark Side?For some time we’ve been hearing about the virtues of cloud-based computing.

Certain functions seem to lend themselves to the cloud. Online word processing, spreadsheets, etc. can seem to make sense in some situations, such as collaborating with others.

In everyday use scenarios, does the cloud really make sense in more traditional private computer-use situations? I contend that it does not.

Right now I’m typing this into Microsoft Word on my MacBook Pro. At the moment I have rather lousy Sprint and Verizon connectivity, even though 12 hours ago at this very same location I had really good connectivity from both. The only thing that changed is the time of day. If I was currently limited to using Google Docs chances are I would be unable to write this. Network demand constantly fluctuates depending on the time of day and location.

Is there enough bandwidth available? With the tsunami of smartphones that are on the immediate horizon, will the carriers be able to keep up with the average five-fold bandwidth demand increase that the average smartphone user pulls from the network? Can carriers keep up with a smartphone-saturated public all trying to pull down data at the same time?

However, for the sake of argument let’s say that mobile Internet connectivity isn’t an issue.

What if the Internet is turned off due to a declared cyber attack and all of your documents are online? What good would the network appliance approach to computing be then?

Can e-books be revised after the fact? If government can simply decide to turn off the Internet, then it’s not that much of a leap to imagine laws and regulations being passed banning certain types of blogs or even books that have been deemed dangerous or seditious. There have already been books sold such as “1984” by Amazon that were deleted from Kindles after the fact by Amazon when it was determined that Amazon didn’t have the legal right to sell it in e-book form. What if instead of banning books, they were simply rewritten to remove the offending parts? What’s to stop instant revision of e-books that have been declared dangerous?

Prove it: Challenge to Modders, Make Me a CDMA iPhone 4

Posted by J Powers at 10:10 PM on July 22, 2010

Rumor, rumor, on the wall. Apple rumors talk abound. Are they true or are they not. Rumor, rumor fill my pot.

Thought I would make a nursery rhyme on this. After all, rumors seem to be Mother Gooses best yarns.

Some rumors come true. Others, not so much. No clam shell phone, no mini version either. But will that one rumor that has been around since the 1st generation iPhone finally happen? Will Apple switch to Verizon?

Apple and AT&T, sittin in a tree…

There is a lot of “Love – Hate” relationship information on these two. Apple jabs at AT&T at WWDC. AT&T jabs at Apple antennaegate. Yet, they still have an exclusivity with each other.

Is it all about the money? Is there something special about the two? Are they both good kissers?

Verizon iPhone Mock

Verizon iPhone Mock

Little Boys Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint want an Apple bad

No doubt that Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint would gain instant market share if the leader in Smartphone technology was to jump to another carrier.

Of course, T-Mobile would be the easiest, since they are also GSM. I have no doubt in my mind that in some deepest, darkest room somewhere in Apple, there is a CDMA iPhone just sitting, waiting for it’s chance.

R&D, cost of production, Return on investment. Would it be worth it? Maybe if the architecture is easy to switch between the two carriers

Challenge, challenge, to you all – convert the iPhone for the call

I throw this challenge out to anybody who’s an engineer. If Apple is even thinking about a CDMA iPhone, then they would design it to easily swap out the GSM chip with a CDMA. Unplug one board, plug in the other, fix some code and start talking.

Maybe someone has already done this. We have people taking apart iPhones with the express need to find out what’s inside. Rip apart, inventory and plan for the rebuild.

Let’s prove Mother Goose can step out of the book and say “Hi”. Let’s put the childish games aside. Let us eat our Green Eggs and Ham. Let’s just do it to say we can.

So Is The iPhone A Good Phone?

Posted by tomwiles at 3:44 AM on July 21, 2010

When the iPhone came along in 2007, many people were immediately disappointed, including me, that it was tied at the hip to AT&T. In retrospect, that set the stage for what was to follow.

Immediately many iPhone users began to complain about poor signal coverage and dropped calls. It seems that everyone assumed that the iPhone itself as a phone was as good or better than any other phone – after all, it was an Apple device, implying that it had to be good.

Fast-forward to now. The iPhone 4 comes out, and immediately some users began to complain about the new antenna design and the “ground out” effect that happens on some phones when certain areas of the external metal antenna comes into contact with human skin, resulting in signal attenuation.

Apple’s immediate reaction was to come out with a statement saying they had checked in to the issue, and discovered to their dismay that every iPhone ever sold had a signal calculation problem. Ooops, the result was that every iPhone going back to the original model happened to be displaying too many signal strength bars for a given signal level. So sorry, the calculation error meant we weren’t following the exact AT&T signal strength calculation specifications. Gee Whiz!!! We have a download that will fix that optimistic display signal strength problem and make it more realistic.

I have no doubt that there was an honest calculation error. The bigger question that remains is this – how do various iPhone models stack up to other specific phone models on the same AT&T network? Does anyone actually test these things in a scientific way? It’s well known that different phone models exhibit different performance levels in the same specific signal areas. Some phone models will work in marginal signal situations where other phone models fail to perform at all.

For some time, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that the iPhone has never had top cell phone performance. AT&T has likely taken a lot of bashing over the past few years that it might not have entirely deserved.

Verizon puts each new phone model through an extensive testing and certification process before they will sell them for use on the Verizon network, thus ensuring that each new device will meet a certain minimum level of performance. This way the Verizon brand and network performance reputation is protected from the bad word-of-mouth that a marginally performing device would likely generate.

If a CDMA version of the iPhone exists, and the rumors are true that it will eventually show up for sale at Verizon, this has to mean that it’s already being tested. Will the CDMA iPhone pass the Verizon tests?

Perhaps more importantly to some, are the iPhone CDMA testers with their black horn-rimmed glasses hanging out in bars shouting “Can you hear me now?” into mysterious phone models disguised to look like Droids? Is there an app for that?

History Is About To Repeat

Posted by tomwiles at 12:18 AM on July 15, 2010

I remember it well. Back around October of 2004, I first heard the word “podcast” used on The David Lawrence Show via my XM Satellite Radio. It sounded interesting, and I wrote it down on my driver logbook cover with the idea of looking it up later. I heard David mention it again once or twice over the next few weeks. Finally, in early December of 2004 I finally got around to looking it up. I found Adam Curry’s podcast, realized what it was, and knew that I felt compelled to not only listen to podcasts but get involved as a podcaster myself. This was exactly what I’d been looking for for many years – a wide variety of content that I could choose, download, and control the playback/consumption of on MY terms.

Podcasting took previously-existing elements and applied them with a new twist. MP3 files had already existed for a number of years. Virtually every computer already came with a sound card and had the basic ability to both play back and record audio. Portable MP3 players had been around for a while. Apart from Adam Curry’s and Dave Winer’s contribution of the podcasting concept and making it work, the one key element that suddenly made podcasting viable and actually inevitable was the fact that Internet bandwidth got good enough to make it practical.

Practical is an important key.

We have now passed another important milestone in terms of mobile bandwidth. Mobile bandwidth, while not yet perfect, has improved dramatically in both terms of data delivery and coverage. About three or more years ago I had experimented with streaming audio via my smartphone while driving my truck, and quickly determined that it wasn’t viable. I couldn’t listen long at all before I would lose the stream. No problem, I had plenty of podcasts to listen to.

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about Pandora.Com lately, so last week I finally tried the Pandora Android app out on my new Sprint HTC Evo. To my surprise, it worked amazingly well – even in Arizona and the western third of New Mexico along Interstate 40 where Sprint still has 1XRT service. The streaming music sounded great, and the few times it did briefly drop out in a couple of mountainous areas, it automatically reconnected and reestablished the playback stream.

(By the way, a side note – I was surprised to learn that Verizon has NO data card coverage around the Kingman, Arizona area – my Verizon aircard would NOT connect in the Kingman area.)

Streaming radio via the Internet in a moving vehicle is now practical. Smartphones have also reached critical mass to the point where they are really beginning to move into the mainstream. Even though streaming Internet audio has been around for quite a few years at this point, I believe the automotive market for streaming audio is about to open up in a massive way.

Up until this point most people have felt that streaming Internet radio had plateaued or was only going to grow slowly. I believe that improved cell networks along with smartphone proliferation will create a new market for streaming audio services. The automobile has been the traditional stronghold of terrestrial and now satellite radio services. An old kid that’s been around a while suddenly has a big and growing shot at a new lease-on life.

I believe opportunities exist for streaming Internet radio stations that deliver highly specialized content. For us geeks, imagine a 24/7 tech-centric streaming station. The sky really is the limit. The cost of running a streaming station can be very low, so therefore it becomes possible and practical to narrowcast to relatively small audiences.

Smart Phone Critical Mass

Posted by tomwiles at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2010

The smartphone is a concept and an evolving device that has been around for a few years, though until now mass consumer adoption has been slow.

The introduction of the iPhone in June 2007 marked a radical improvement in smartphone interface design, usability and device capabilities. The iPhone caused a big upheaval in the then somewhat sleepy cell phone market. Even though the iPhone was an instant hit and unquestionably successful product, Apple’s choice of tying the iPhone exclusively to AT&T in the United States likely slowed the pace of faster smartphone adoption. In a way, this slowing of smartphone adoption has been good because it has allowed carriers to beef up their networks in the interim.

Google entered the smartphone market announcing Android in November of 2007. Initial implementations of Android-powered devices demonstrated promise, but it has taken a while for Android itself to be improved, and smartphone manufacturers such as HTC and Motorola to come up with highly-desirable devices that take full advantage of Android’s evolving and and advanced features and capabilities.

We are now in July of 2010. The iPhone 4 has been introduced. Alongside the iPhone 4, highly-desirable and functional devices such as the HTC Evo 4G, Droid Incredible , Droid X, and other Android-powered devices have either arrived or are shortly to come on the market. Now there’s suddenly a new problem – all of these devices are in short supply, and manufacturers such as HTC are scrambling to ramp up production to meet the demand that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Where did all of this smartphone demand come from? There are several pieces of the marketplace puzzle that have finally come together all at the same time. The new smartphone devices are finally at a point where they are highly usable. Multiple competing cell networks are finally at a point where data connectivity and speed make them usable. Also, millions of consumers over the past few years have become intimately familiar with “dumb” phone models that have had smartphone-like features embedded into them, such as integrated cameras, limited Internet browsing, gaming, text messaging and GPS functionality. They make regular use of these features, and are ready to move up to better devices with larger screens.

The smartphone has reached critical mass and is ready to continue the march towards maturation. Smartphones are becoming a very mainstream product. People who a few years ago would have never considered any phone labeled with the smartphone moniker are now readily embracing the new devices.

As a result of this mass consumer adoption of the smartphone that’s now underway, the market for highly-specialized smartphone apps will continue to explode to a degree in the future we might consider surprising even today. Multiple millions of consumers have millions of different needs and expectations. This exploding smartphone app market lends itself to the development of highly specialized niche applications.

Virtually any type of personal or industrial use a computer can be put to can likely also be done with a specialized app running on a modern smartphone. One tiny example of this is already in use is the area of automotive diagnostics. For many years, automotive technicians have used laptop computers in conjunction with special software connected via a cable to an automotive diagnostic port to onboard vehicle computers. Such software already exists for the iPhone to be used in place of a laptop computer, able to replace the cable connection with a Bluetooth connection. Imagine this realized potential multiplied a million times and you catch a glimpse of the future potential for smartphone apps and the uses these devices can and will be put to.

Motorola Droid getting First update

Posted by Mike Dell at 10:55 PM on December 7, 2009

Verizon Wireless is rolling out the first droid update starting today.

From the Verizon webiste: The following enhancements to the Droid by Motorola have been made:

* OS stability is improved.
* Battery life is improved.
* Camera auto focus functionality is improved, and time between shots is reduced.
* Enhancements for three-way calling.
* Audio for incoming calls is improved.
* When receiving a call on call waiting, the speakerphone now
* remains on.
* Bluetooth® functionality is improved; background echo is eliminated.
* Improved Bluetooth phone book transfer of contacts to in-vehicle
* Bluetooth solutions.
* After closing a GPS application, the GPS icon will now automatically be removed from the notification panel.
* Users can now receive SMS and MMS messages after an EMS
* message is received.
* SMS and MMS may now be sent to seven-digit addresses.
* Google® contact merging has been updated to accommodate
* seven-digit numbers.
* Visual Voice Mail notices now arrive instantaneously.
* The corporate calendar widget user interface is updated.

The new firmware will be 2.0.1 and will be rolled out over the new few days. Someone over at the Droidforums.net has posted a map of where the updates are coming in. Google Maps – Droid updates.

As far as anyone knows now, it’s just updating the Droid by Motorola and not the Droid Eris or other android handsets.

I, for one, hope the battery life improves. So far I love the phone and I’m sure it will just get better with time.

Charging Us More For Your Failures Won’t Make us Like You Better

Posted by susabelle at 9:55 AM on November 5, 2009

verizon logoVerizon announced yesterday that they are doubling their early terminations fees, to reach as much as $350 for some users. I have never understood the use of early termination fees as an alternative to providing service people want in the way that they want it. I also do not buy into the claim that all those long-term contracts are supporting expensive hardware that users are getting at a reduced rate.

There are a dozen reasons why someone might need to cancel a phone contract. A job transfer could take them to a location that doesn’t have good service on their existing plan. The loss of a job can mean that the cell thing is the first thing to go. Poor customer service, or not getting full value out of the service you thought you purchased could be another reason to drop a plan and go with another. Cost can also be a factor; comparing your current plan against other carriers can often show you where you can save a little money. None of these things are unusual, unexpected, nor should they be punishable. If I change brands of cat food, I don’t get penalized. If I stop eating at one restaurant in favor of another, I am not penalized. We like to change our minds, and we like to have the freedom and choice to do so.

Adding hefty early termination fees to already ridiculously inflated service plans isn’t the best way to get me as a customer. You can market me until you’re blue in the face, but if I feel like I’m going to be taken advantage of, I am going to walk away. I don’t mind paying a fair and reasonable price for decent service, and I don’t mind that wireless carriers are making a little profit. What I do mind is that wireless carriers are making billions of dollars in profit, yet fuss that they do not have the capital to invest in expanding their infrastructure and wireless architecture to give us better service. It is like the brother-in-law who borrows $300 to pay his electric bill, doesn’t pay you back, but shows up at your house the next month with a new car. I don’t have much sympathy for that kind of economic game-playing in people, I certainly don’t want to see it in my wireless carrier.

When wireless carriers can show me that a cell phone, even a smart one, costs several thousand dollars to produce, then I might change my mind. But until then, I am going to ride my carriers hard and expect a lot out of them. That is what I’m paying for, and I expect to get it. Doubling up on early termination fees just took one carrier out of the running, in my mind.

New Droid Drops Ad

Posted by Mike Dell at 9:55 AM on November 4, 2009

A very cool droid commercial. I just wonder if they are really going to air drop the phones to places where the people don’t know what they are.