California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.

The future in 2G

A lot of my job is done abroad. This year I spent almost two and a half months abroad, 73 days all told. Being out of the States so often and for so long, cumulatively, gives me many opprotunities to learn and to remember things I’ve forgotten since moving back to the US in 2008. I really appreciate these chances, even if some of them are lonely, or represent significant challenges at work. Enough are interesting and for personal adventure to keep me happy, and keep me traveling.

2014 brought one specific change to my travel methods, and because of that an experience I wanted to share. I no longer use local SIMs, save in extraordinary situations. In October of 2013, T-Mobile, an American mobile phone company, launched free international data roaming. Even now, more than a year later, typing those words feels amazing. Free international data. To give context, previous international data deals available in the US ran something in the realm of $30 USD for 50 megabytes of international roaming data. Thirty dollars for fifty megabytes. It’s easy to see why I switched to T-Mobile.

The catch, because of course there is one, is that this free and unlimited data comes down from the tower at 2G speeds.

So I spent one fifth of 2014 on 2G, and the remaining four fifths on LTE. Or with no service in the wilder parts of the US, specifically northern California, north western Colorado, and a lot of the cross-country train ride. That is another trade-off that comes with chosing T-Mobile. It’s an easy choice for me, being primarily a city person.

Having free international data and spending so much time on the road, be it in the trains of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, or the traffic of Manila and Shenzhen, not to mention factories, restaurants, and hotels, means a lot of phone time. A lot of email. A lot of Twitter. A lot of web. And that leads to the point. In 2014, the web is hard on 2G. Sites load slowly, first displaying banner ads and only then, tens of seconds later, the all-text content of the article. Mastheads take dozens of seconds to load, complex drop down menus and high-resolution logos. Analytics packages. And ads. Some activities and apps simply don’t scale well to 2G. Instagram, for example, is an exercise in patience, but a worthwhile one. And Google Maps, well…

In 2014 it feels like the network is finally everywhere, or almost. And it feels like the future. Being able to turn on my phone in any country on landing and check on my cat, at home in San Francisco, will probably still feel surprisingly wonderful for another couple of years. And 2G isn’t bad for most things. Despite how it probably sounds, this post is not meant as a complaint. It’s meant as a note, a reminder, and a future consideration. For example, loading time for maps matter. More than anything, maps are used when in unfamiliar locations, and often those are situations without great network access. Be it hotel wifi, 2G cell network, or just the slow connections of many smaller cities, maps are most necessary on the fringes, out of our comfort zone, and often in something of a hurry. Yes, most of the places I’ve been have faster networks. Hong Kong has excellent service, faster than the US in many cases. But not every place does. Not every city has LTE, nor every carrier, and that’s the point.

I view these 73 days on 2G as a test of how we interact with networks, and as a challenge for service design. Twitter as it used to be, all text 140 characters or less, was the perfect low-bandwidth mobile-first service. Modern Twitter, with video, photos, expanded links, and soundcloud embedded, is increasingly something built for fast networks, for always-on connections. Not necessarily a bad set of decisions, but a definite shift from a service originally built on SMS, built for the mobile networks we used to have and that many still do.

Of course not all things are built for slow mobile networks, and that’s fine. Heck, Tumblr is one of them, image heavy and full of .gifs. Oh god, .gifs on 2G. If ever a format’s resurgence has come without consideration of bandwith, .gif is it.

Overall I think a few weeks on 2G is something product teams should experience, and consider, not just today or this year, but well into the future. There will be people on slower networks and with worse connections for much longer than San Francisco, which had quite poor cell networks just a handfull of years ago. If a service is designed to “change the world” it needs to be usable out in that world.

Palm Pre 2 thoughts, part 2

Last of it’s kind, the Palm Pre 2 arrived in December at my office, unlocked, direct from HP.

I have been asked a dozen times why, happy with my iPhone 4, I purchased a Pre 2. The answer can be found here. It was not a joke, I firmly believed releasing unlocked hardware would help Palm. The fact that it took a near-collapse and subsequent assimilation by HP to push the new corporation (HPalm?) into releasing unlocked GSM hardware does not deter me. By all accounts the Pre 2 and webOS 2 were far superior to the originals, and I was eager. The results speak both to the Palm team’s successes and to the difficulty of their chosen task.

The Pre 2 is what I consider to be the best form factor possible. While I have gotten very comfortable typing on a touch screen over the last several years, the speed allowed by a hardware keyboard can never be equaled.  I do not mean the typing speed, though that may be true. I mean the speed of access. The iPhone has a single means of access: the screen. Although the display can function as a variety of inputs (keyboard, number pad, chooser list, etc.) the phone and OS must first be told which one of those to present.  With a single swipe left from the home screen every application, person, message, and web site is searchable. The key to that sentence is the beginning, “with a single swipe left from the home screen”. Without that gesture from that particular location, there is no search.

On the Pre 2, and any other device with hardware keyboard, search can simply be a function of beginning to type. Context for the display, from an unaccessed state, does not matter. On my iPhone 4 I often attempt to swipe left while in an app only to realize I have to first return to the home screen with a button press and then swipe left. Only after that is complete will I be able to start my search query.

Likewise, storing the hardware keyboard in portrait orientation, below the screen, is a fantastic fit. It means the phone can be all screen whenever possible. It also means that when the keyboard is extended the phone feels incredibly natural to hold. Landscape keyboards unbalance phones, making them unwieldy and heavy, impossible to hold in a single hand, let alone type on with one.

The Pre 2’s small screen size does not bother me after an hour or two. In fact it is the iPhone that feels large and strangely flat upon returning to it. This is a long way of saying the Pre 2 feels great in the hand and pocket, and is easy on the eyes.

However, the Pre 2 desperately needs a rotation lock. The hardware rotation lock on the iPad (prior to iOS 4.1 or post iOS 4.2) is a brilliant feature.  Turning the Pre 2 can be a surprisingly frustrating experience, because the sensor’s calibration and response speed lag slightly, meaning that one turns the phone to landscape (when reading a web site, for example), waits, returns it back to portrait and then to landscape again very quickly, and then watches as the phone performs all 3 transformations in a disjointed manner.  The odd “shake” of the phone to make the sensor adjust the screen that old (pre iOS 4.0) iPhone users knew is back with webOS.

There it is then: the Pre 2 is hardware I constantly want to touch. It looks good, it feels good, and using it is, mostly, absolutely wonderful. Every time I go back to it I’m happy, and every time I leave it I miss the small shape and the clicking keys.  WebOS is a delight to use, works as advertised and has a sense of motion and organization lacking from it’s competitors, Android and iOS.  It is a wonderful platform, and something I will watch further.

Why then do I constantly return to my iPhone 4?  There are two reasons, and they revolve around the same concept, something only my time with these two phones has made me understand.


When I have to work on my phone, which is a more and more common occurance globally, I can’t hesitate. When I’m driving to a vendor’s office or a FedEx location I googled three minutes ago, when I’m trying to call someone from a restaurant, or when I’m looking for an email with pricing I got a month ago, I have to *know* that my phone will do what I want.

The Pre 2 and webOS are pretty, they multitask well, their notification system is achingly simple and wonderfully functional. And when I launch Google Maps it sometimes works.  Sometimes it sits pulsing at the launch screen for several minutes, until I use the wonderful card interface to go back to my email.  When I try to call someone from my bluetooth headset and realize that I have to find their information on the phone, because bluetooth voice dial, while listed as a feature for webOS 2.1, does not yet work on my Pre 2’s webOS 2.0.1, I miss my iPhone.

When I am going out for the afternoon and look at the battery meter on the Pre 2, it often reads 40%.  At 2 pm that is a worrisome thing, something that makes me think about my charger’s location and my ability to power the phone from my car’s USB socket.

The Pre 2 and HP’s new OS are wonderful things. But they do not inspire trust. Not yet. Battery life and responsiveness are two things I used not to consider critical with smartphones. They all had poor battery life and they all were a little slow to respond.  In that market the Pre 2 looks great, because the thought that went into webOS is clearly worlds above what went into most phone operating systems. That is not the current market.

I enjoy using the Pre 2, and wish I could do so more often.  I hope that webOS 2.1 brings better performance, fewer bugs, and bluetooth voice dialing, which is a deal breaker for my 45 minute commute.  Perhaps the Pre 3 will feature a more robust battery, and a more responsive mapping application. I hope so. I would love to be able to recommend webOS, to show my friends my phone and to have them be able to buy one, from HP unlocked, from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon. I would like more people to see this carefully designed OS. I think that would be good for everyone.

Maybe this summer.

Until then I’ll admire my Pre 2 and use it, with my hand-cut SIM card adaptor, on days I don’t need to do a lot of work.

Honda Fit thoughts, part 1

Next week will mark my fourth month with the 2010 Honda Fit Sport.  Like all items thoroughly researched online prior to purchase, I had expectations and opinions about it and cars like it long before I set foot in a dealer or got behind the wheel. 

Now, with the benefit of a few weeks behind the wheel, my opinions have been clarified with experience, and I can say something far too rare:

The Honda Fit consistently exceeds my expectations and surprises me with the consideration that went into it’s design. 

Named “the Mobile,” as it does not squire Batman, my Fit Sport has a range of options surprising both for breadth and specificity. There are 8+ cup holders. Paddle shifters. A USB port for the stereo. Tire air level indicators. Magic seats. A MPG read out. Seemingly every feature I envy on larger cars. And yet the list of features left out is striking too: automatic headlights, steering wheel volume controls, a temperature gauge, automatic seats, floor mats (which are optional).  Each of these represents a choice to meet a price, but more importantly to cater to a specific customer. And that customer, it seems, is me. The Mobile has everything I want and absolutely nothing I don’t.

The Fit is not a big car. Living in San Francisco, this is a major consideration, as parking is a challenge even in my neighborhood. Being able to park on my block, often in front of my house, because the Fit is small enough for the odd spaces that sit vacant, is a boon of startlingly large proportions.  This is why I was looking at hatchbacks.

Yet, and this is the miracle of Honda’s design, the Fit feels full-sized from the inside.  Five adults fit without discomfort.  And the “Magic Seat” touted by salesmen on both coasts is indeed magical, transforming the car that seems to have no depth to a hauler to rival small SUV’s.  Does this miracle of engineering and optical trickery seem impossible to believe? It should. The proof however overwhelms the skepticism.  Consider the following list:

  • A Full size Ikea mattress
  • Four Workrite Sierra single table electric desks (unassembled)
  • Two 5’9" humans, prone and asleep

All of those things have fit comfortably in the Fit with the seats flat.  Not at the same time, of course.

The last one is particularly impressive, given the car’s length and width, both of which are smaller than a standard family car.  Sleeping in it, I wondered if my legs would cramp.  Actually, no, because, with a slight bend at the waist, I could keep them straight.

While this doesn’t help the 6’5" members of our community, it’s an impressive feature of a ~$17,000 car, options depending.

This post comes about because a woman, walking by while I was parking in an exceptionally small space directly across from my apartment building today, said “I’m thinking of getting one of those.”

My response was simply that it was an outstanding automobile, and that I loved it more every day.

“That’s a strong endorsement,” she said.

Which is true.