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Amy Gahran's news and musings on how we communicate in the online age.



Updated: 2015-05-28T17:59:07Z

 



Why unlocked smartphones and no-contract plans are a much better deal

2015-05-28T17:59:07Z

I am so, so sick of the way U.S. wireless carriers totally rip off smartphone users by locking them into expensive 2-year contracts — with the lure of getting a high-end smartphone for only a couple hundred bucks up front. … Continue reading →I am so, so sick of the way U.S. wireless carriers totally rip off smartphone users by locking them into expensive 2-year contracts — with the lure of getting a high-end smartphone for only a couple hundred bucks up front. For most customers, the math just doesn’t work. So I’m casting off the financial and technological shackles, to be a mobile consumer on my own terms. I will never again buy a subsidized phone or sign another long-term carrier contract. This month I bought an unlocked Nexus 5 smartphone direct from Google, and I’m now switching to my first no-contract plan. Yes, I paid more up front for the phone, Plus I’ll have to pay a hefty “screw you” early termination fee to ditch my Verizon contract. It’s still so worth it. Why? Here’s the short version: Considering all costs to make this switch, and the savings I’ll get, I’ll see about a 4-month payback plus savings of nearly $70/month thereafter! Plus I’ll have tons more flexibility in devices, carriers and plans from here out. Hell yeah! Here’s the math behind this choice… Context: I needed a new phone now anyway. My Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which I bought for $250 subsidized under a Verizon 2-year contract in July 2012, is dogging out to the point of becoming useless for me. (The device is fine; I’m just a power user and have exhausted its capabilities.) So I can’t wait until my current contract ends at the end of this summer to get a new phone. My average phone bill for the cheapest Verizon plan I can currently get to meet my needs for my Galaxy Nexus is $118/month. Ouch. I bought my unlocked Nexus 5 from Google for a total of $420, (w/ tax & shipping), with no phone/data plan. I’ve been playing around with it on wifi only to make sure I really like it before I commit. It’s very snappy. I’m happy. Of course, no smartphone stands alone. For instance, in my experience all smartphone batteries suck. It’s just a limitation of current battery technology. I need a portable backup battery for any phone because I use my phone a lot in places where plugging in isn’t an option, like airplanes. Unlike my Galaxy Nexus, you can’t swap the battery on the Nexus 5. So I got a good deal on a whompous portable backup external battery for the Nexus 5: $40. I also bought an inexpensive textured case to decrease the chance that I’d drop and break my Nexus 5: $10. Gross hardware investment for my new Nexus 5: $470. But there is my old phone: I will wipe and factory reset my Galaxy Nexus and expect to sell it on eBay for about $60-$80. (I’ll throw in my 3 spare batteries, rubberized case and charger for free.) Even if I stuck with Verizon, they’d probably give me $0 credit for my old phone but still require me to trade it in anyway to get a new phone and contract. So that lowers my net hardware investment for the Nexus 5 to $410 (conservatively). Currently, Verizon would sell me a comparable new phone, the HTC 1, at the subsidized price of $299, which would require a new 2-year contract. Or, being the generous souls they are, Verizon would sell me the HTC 1 unsubsidized and with no contract — but not unlocked — for just $599. (Yeah, seriously. They should open The Tonight Show with that joke.) So: Net price premium: $111 for the unlocked Nexus 5, vs. the best I could do by sticking with Verizon. (Remember, I needed a new phone now anyway.) But wait, there’s more! “We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the phone company!” (Lily Tomlin, as the inimitable Ernestine) When I cancel my Verizon contract later this month, I’ll get stuck with an ETF of $170-$180. (I’ll fight it, but I expect to lose. As Lily Tomlin said: They [...]



5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile technology: presentation

2012-07-25T15:14:42Z

One reason mobile technology fascinates me is its ubiquity across all levels of society. That makes it potentially a very powerful tool to engage and empower people who don’t necessarily sit at the top of the U.S. privilege food chain. … Continue reading →One reason mobile technology fascinates me is its ubiquity across all levels of society. That makes it potentially a very powerful tool to engage and empower people who don’t necessarily sit at the top of the U.S. privilege food chain. On Thursday, July 26, I’ll be delivering the following presentation at the Social Media for Nonprofits – Silicon Valley conference: 5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile technology. (Follow the conference hashtag: #sm4np) This presentation is meant to be just a quick overview, to let nonprofits know what’s possible today, and where they should focus their attention. style="border: 1px solid #CCC; border-width: 1px 1px 0; margin-bottom: 5px;" src="http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/13752044" frameborder="0" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" width="427" height="356"> 5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile from agahran Why the focus on “affordable?” Well, mobile technology isn’t free… It costs money to get a mobile device, and telephony/data service is an ongoing expense. Also, if an organization wants to offer content or services optimized for delivery to mobile devices, they’ll have to invest time and effort — and often lay out some cash — to make it work. Most nonprofits, especially those which operate at a community level, don’t have a lot of money or technical expertise. But they can still leverage existing mobile (or mobile-friendly) tools, platforms, and strategies to further their core missions to serve communities or raise awareness. Earlier this year I co-authored a white paper published by the ZeroDivide Foundation: Funding mobile strategies for social impact. This document is intended to orient grantmakers to the possibilities of mobile — but it’s also pretty useful for nonprofits, too. Here are the mobile strategies I’ll recommend to nonprofits in my presentation this week: Mobile landing pages.Actually I advocate mobile-optimized websites wherever possible. But as a starting point, nonprofits which offer services or information, or which run campaigns of any kind, can launch some targeted mobile-friendly landing pages as an initial engagement point for mobile users. This is especially important if you’re doing any marketing or advertising that includes a web address — anywhere people see a URL, they should be able to enter that into their phone and get a mobile-friendly webpage.Google Sites offers a basic but pretty good — and free — landing page builder. It’s intended for business, but nonprofits should be able to use the lead generation or custom themes pretty well. And if you’re not sure how well your current site performs via mobile (or even if you think it’s a great mobile site), use Google’s site performance testing toolto see what kind of mobile experience you’re really delivering. Tumblr.This relative social media newcomer is exploding in popularity, especially among people under 25. Tumblr is a hybrid of microblogging and social media. The reason I like Tumblr, and advocate its use, is that it’s perhaps the most mobile-friendly blogging tool out there — both for mobile viewing/interaction, and for posting via mobile.Everything you post to a public Tumblr blog gets indexed by search engines — which beats the hell out of Facebook’s walled garden in the long run. Oh, and Tumblr is completely free. And you can create as many Tumblr blogs as you like off a single account, making it useful for special projects or campaigns. Crowdsourcing via social media. Besides texting and taking pictures, social media is one of the most popular non-voice activities people do on their mobi[...]



Why Facebook’s mobile apps suck: A developer’s view

2012-05-31T18:24:54Z

I’ll admit it: Contrary to my own expectations I’ve grown to  use Facebook much more than I thought I would have — mainly because it’s the most common point of connection across my many social and interest circles. And I … Continue reading →I’ll admit it: Contrary to my own expectations I’ve grown to  use Facebook much more than I thought I would have — mainly because it’s the most common point of connection across my many social and interest circles. And I use it more despite Facebook’s persistently horrid user interface. But Facebook is especially horrendous on mobile. For instance, the Facebook Android app won’t let me share items from other people’s streams, the way the Facebook standard website does.  Also, on the Facebook Android app I can’t tag someone in a status update (like saying “Joe Schmoe loves this kind of sushi.”) — I can only indicate whether I’m “with” someone, which often isn’t the case. Argh. Gah…. Anyway, today while I’m researching and writing about Facebook’s various mobile problems, I found Kevin C. Tofel’s May 15 GigaOm post: Does your Facebook mobile app suck? here’s why He summarized findings published in the Mobtest blog. These only looked at problems with Facebook’s iOS app, but they’re interesting even though I’m an Android user. In a nutshell, Facebook’s app relies heavily on web technology (HTML) to deliver content.  There are good reasons for this, but on iOS devices it causes problems. Here’s how Mobtest summed it up: Why would Facebook use HTML technology inside a native iOS app? HTML is easier for displaying fluid content. Objective-C really sucks when it comes to fluid display. An image with text around it, buttons with varying text labels are really hard to create yourself in Objective-C as you have to calculate dimensions and positions of all elements yourself. In particular for a timeline HTML will be much easier. Creates code that can be shared across different platforms. iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone are all different technologies and a developer’s nightmare. Sharing some content/functionality in the form of HTML makes sense. HTML is much more in line with Facebook’s continuous deployment process. FB developers are responsible for their own QA, and part of that is to push code out to a limited set of servers, see results and then push it out to more and do this each day if not more often. With Apple taking as least a week of review, rolling back a code change is a nightmare. They can get away with it. Yes Facebook is not a bank, there are no other iOS FB apps out there and we will still use the service as it has a virtual monopoly on social networking with 900 million users now. We just have to suck it up. Feature phones is where growth is. A very high percentage of iPhone and Android users already have the Facebook app installed. The next frontier is feature phones, in particular in non-western parts of the world. These new users will first encounter Facebook on their mobile, and it will not be a shining iPhone. OK, that doesn’t explain the boneheaded lack of key features in Facebook’s Android app that I noted, but it could help explain some of the poor performance I’ve experienced — slow load times, lagging updates and push notifications, and lots and lots of crashes. Tofel, an iPhone user, closed his GigaOm post with this observation: …For the time being, I’m going to switch to m.facebook.com in my smartphone browser. I did some testing this afternoon and the experience is far faster, up to date and generally offers the same features as the native mobile app.   [...]



Making digital advertising accountable for impact (or not)

2012-05-22T22:03:59Z

Recently I was telling a group of publishers that, unfortunately, much of the business that has supported journalism (advertising) has always been smoke and mirrors. Advertisers took it mostly on faith that they were getting what they were paying for … Continue reading →Recently I was telling a group of publishers that, unfortunately, much of the business that has supported journalism (advertising) has always been smoke and mirrors. Advertisers took it mostly on faith that they were getting what they were paying for (i.e., increased sales or influence). I don’t doubt that they got some of those benefits, but probably never nearly as much as the people selling ad space promised. That’s a problem: If integrity is supposedly what you have to offer your audience or community, then it’s bad business to shaft your customers (the advertisers). Then along came the age of digital advertising, and finally some direct evidence of advertising’s impact started creeping in to the picture: clickthroughs, etc. These metrics were flawed and digital advertising mostly sucked (but then again, so did most print and broadcast advertising), but it was a step toward accountability, at least theoretically. And then there was a development that purported to go even further toward helping advertisers and marketers ensure that they were spending their money usefully across all media, digital and otherwise: the demand-side platform. Wikipedia currently defines this as: A system that allows digital advertisers to manage multiple ad exchange and data exchange accounts through one interface. Real time bidding for displaying online ads takes place within the ad exchanges, and by utilizing a DSP, marketers can manage their bids for the banners and the pricing for the data that they are layering on to target their audiences. DSPs are unique because they incorporate many of the facets previously offered by advertising networks, such as wide access to inventory and vertical and lateral targeting, with the ability to serve ads, real-time bid on ads, track the ads, and optimize. This is all kept within one interface which creates a unique opportunity for advertisers to truly control and maximize the impact of their ads.  Sounds good — except that DSPs can be mostly smoke and mirrors all over again, just with more data attached. Check out Confessions of a Demand-Side Platform Salesperson, from Digiday this week: Anyone that has not worked at a DSP or a trading desk, consider yourself lucky. It is the cesspool of our industry, with the DSPs racing towards an acquisition or IPO and the trading desks trying to validate themselves as valuable within the holding companies. It is a sweatshop environment on both sides, with workers who are bludgeoned from the top down. …I think it is time for the major advertisers to get in and take responsibility for how their dollars are being spent. There is double-dipping within many agency/trading desks, and your advertising dollars are not as impactful as they have been. The tires need to be violently kicked at a trading desk before agreeing to allow your dollars to go through there.  Also, the big publishers need to man up, regain their integrity and pull out. Madoff pulled off his scheme under the watchful eye of the SEC. You think the same thing isn’t happening under the oh-so frightening eye of the IAB?   [...]



Five ways to think mobile first (notes for OpenGov Hackathon and BCNI Philly)

2012-04-27T19:54:53Z

On Saturday April 28 I’ll be in Philadelphia to help with the BarCamp News Innovation unconference and Open Government News Hackathon. These events are sponsored by the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University, and are part of Philly … Continue reading →On Saturday April 28 I’ll be in Philadelphia to help with the BarCamp News Innovation unconference and Open Government News Hackathon. These events are sponsored by the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University, and are part of Philly Tech Week. Temple is my old stomping ground; I graduated from journalism school there in 1990. And I’m rather stunned at all the huge new buildings that have sprung up around the campus. Good to see the school grow! The reason Temple brought me in to help with these events is because I’m passionate about mobile and about the Philly area. I grew up in South Jersey and still have lots of family and friends in the region. So for me, helping more people in the Greater Philadelphia Area access more useful local information, news, and services via their cell phones is not just important — it’s personal! …This is especially pressing given the continuing rocky status of Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com. My grandfather Len McAdams worked on the editorial team of “The Inky” for decades. He’d be furious to hear that earlier this month PMN was sold for the fifth time in six years — at a fire sale price of $55 million. Sheesh. Here are a few points I’d like participants in tomorrow’s barcamp and hackathon to consider… 1. Mobile is fast becoming the most common way for people to get online. Last September IDC predicted that by 2015 more people in the U.S. will access the internet from mobile devices than from laptop or desktop computers. So if you want to reach your community at all, you’ll probably need to do it through their phones. This means it’s becoming not just common, but normal for people to use their cell phones, tablets, and e-readers to do anything that can be done over the internet — search and browse the web, take an online class, send and receive e-mail, use social media, buy stuff, collaborate on documents or projects, stream video and audio, access services (everything from TurboTax and Dropbox to Social Security or your health insurance provider), use instant messaging or video chat, and more. 2. Start considering mobile users FIRST! The core functionality, navigation, and presentation of everything you offer online must work well enough on a cell phone — in a smartphone web browser, and in any apps you offer. This means not just designing with a small screen in mind, but also making touch the primary way that people will interact with your online offering, and minimizing how much typing users need to do. This helps for both cell phones and tablets. Consider what cell phone users want to DO with your content and service. Identify and prioritize the possible activities and interactions. This use case represents an especially activity-focused mindset, more than tablet users. Just because your full website can load on a smartphone’s web browser doesn’t mean it’s mobile friendly. If mobile users must pinch, zoom, and scroll to see what’s on your page, that’s a big hassle. (Even though some iPhone users stridently prefer this. Fine. Whatever. Give them the option to switch to your full site and set a cookie to remember their preference.) These core aspects of how your envision, design, and build your online offerings are now more important than designing a site that looks really nice on a big monitor. Yes, you’ll still need a full site — computers will still be an important use case. But consider how to integrate a user’s experience across multiple devices (as they sw[...]



Boulder better prepared for zombies than Oakland

2012-04-12T19:21:36Z

I’m planning a move from Oakland, CA back to Boulder, CO. Clearly, one factor in this project is: how to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, wherever I am. I checked out Map of the Dead — a great map mashup that … Continue reading →I’m planning a move from Oakland, CA back to Boulder, CO. Clearly, one factor in this project is: how to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, wherever I am. I checked out Map of the Dead — a great map mashup that helps you find the closest zombie survival supplies. Just enter your address to find the locations of the closest gun store, liquor store, grocery or convenience store, hardware store, outdoor store, gas station, doctor, pharmacy, military, police, radio tower, harbor, or airport. They also list the locations of places you’d probably want to avoid during a zombie outbreak: Hospitals and shopping malls (zombies LOVE those places), cemeteries (obviously) and campgrounds (not really defensible). I checked out the Temescal neighborhood in north Oakland, where I currently live. Here’s what I’ve got to work with, considering running distance — and it’s not looking good. I’m pretty close to several major hospitals, which tend to be ground zero in an outbreak. And not too much in the way of nearby supply locations. And, believe it or not, no nearby gun shops. My north Oakland neighborhood: Not looking good in case of zombies. (Click to enlarge) In contrast, downtown Boulder, Colorado seems a smarter bet for waiting out the zombocalypse. Within a few blocks there are several outdoor shops (which is probably also the best place to get survivalist food, water filters, etc.), grocery and liquor stores (if I’m facing zombies, I will need a large supply of good tequila), AND a gun store! Downtown Boulder, Colorado. Better bet for surviving the zombocalypse. (Click to enlarge) Also, the closest hospital is over a mile away from downtown Boulder — not even shown on this map. That’s a bonus. The mobile version of this website isn’t bad, but could stand some further optimization. In fact, this is one of those cases when an app really would be a better option. You’d want to cache this information offline, for when the internet and cell networks go down following mass chaos. And maybe build in an option to use the phone’s antenna as a walkie-talkie, or to listen to radio broadcasts. And, of course, get the latest CDC updates on the status of vaccine development and deployment. Plus an app could store a library of tutorial videos showing key zombie survival skills, like this: [...]



PR fail: World’s dumbest news embargo

2012-02-24T22:44:07Z

I cover technology for CNN.com and elsewhere, so I get a lot of pitch e-mails from PR folks. Some of these are very useful and well targeted. Most are rather “meh.” …And a few are utterly stupid. Here’s one such … Continue reading →

I cover technology for CNN.com and elsewhere, so I get a lot of pitch e-mails from PR folks. Some of these are very useful and well targeted. Most are rather “meh.”

…And a few are utterly stupid.

Here’s one such e-mail I received today, in its entirety. Name of the PR person, PR firm, and client are removed to protect the guilty:

I’m writing today on behalf of [LINK TO CLIENT] a leader and innovative provider of device-centric, [TECHNOLOGY] solutions. They wanted to offer you the opportunity to receive some news which is under embargo until 9 a.m. CET on Monday, Feb. 27. If you are open to receiving news under embargo and agree to this embargo time, I would be happy to provide you with the news.

Seriously: I never heard of the company, I don’t know what this might be about, and I have no way to gauge whether their news is important or interesting enough for me to check out at all — yet THEY want ME to agree to an embargo in advance, before I have any idea whether they’re potentially relevant?

Folks, you always have to prove your information or news is worth somebody’s time. Just tell me why I should care, why this is relevant to me or my work. Always. There is no point in being coy.

And no, I’m not going to click the link in your e-mail to find out more about the company. I don’t know you. This looks like spam.

So I flagged this message as spam.




I’m not alone in this: reflections on social media and digital connection

2012-02-14T23:07:59Z

Social media, digital communication channels, and cell phones often get accused of alienating people, enabling bullies, and breaking down the human ties which are the foundation of society. Bullshit. Personally, I am far happier on a day-to-day basis thanks to … Continue reading →Social media, digital communication channels, and cell phones often get accused of alienating people, enabling bullies, and breaking down the human ties which are the foundation of society. Bullshit. Personally, I am far happier on a day-to-day basis thanks to these technological tools. They have added considerable love, meaning, joy, and value to my life. With their help, I’ve been able to offer nurturing and support to far more people I care about than ever would have been possible otherwise. So I wasn’t surprised when a recent Pew study found that 85% of adult who use social networking sites say that people are mostly kind. Also, 68% reported they’d had a experience on social media that made them feel good about themselves, and 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person. I know I’m not alone in this… OK, yes: Sometimes Twitter, e-mail, blogs, instant messaging, text messages, and Facebook can be annoying and overwhelming. Sometimes they really piss me off, or bring me heartache. Sometimes I ignore them for days at a time, especially when I’m chilling out at my mountain cabin. But for the most part, they have connected me more closely to the people I love, and to several new communities. They’ve sparked and fostered new friendships, and have brought many amazing people into my world. These tools have helped me virtually eliminate loneliness from my life. And I know what it feels like to feel acutely lonely. In 1995, when I relocated from the east coast to Boulder, Colorado, I only knew one person there. I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to that town or job, so I moved out by myself for a trial run. My then-boyfriend stayed behind in NJ, and I rented a month-to-month furnished apartment. My job quickly drove me crazy, but I fell in love with the town. The hard part was: While I was there alone, I was starved for regular friendly conversation and connection. I didn’t immediately strike up any friendships with my new coworkers. I saw my one local friend only rarely. I’d go to bars, coffeeshops, the Pearl St. Mall, and music venues and strike up conversations with strangers — but nothing turned into more than a brief polite exchange of pleasantries. Yes, I’d talk on the phone to my boyfriend most days, and I did many lovely solo hikes in the Flatirons on the edge of town. But the vast majority of those five months before my boyfriend joined me in Colorado, I felt deeply, achingly lonely. I actually got depressed. I cried a lot, and felt fragile much of the time. Moving across the country was disorienting enough, but that loneliness was torture for me. Even though I was growing to love Boulder, even though I had lots of cool stuff to do and books to read, even though I never wanted to return to the east coast — not having people to talk to for such a long stretch was unexpectedly stressful. I didn’t realize how social a person I am until conversation and connection became scarce luxuries. To be honest, I was motivated to start the e-mail discussion group for the Society of Environmental Journalists during those months mostly because I needed to experience some kind of regular conversation and connection to community. (17 years later, that list is still going strong.) My dialup internet connection became an emotional lifeline. This was before cell phones became popular — so when I’d go out to places, try to socialize, and usually not succeed, I’d end up feeling more isolated than ever. Often, I’d give up early and flee to [...]



Not tall enough to ride this attraction

2012-02-09T21:31:18Z

Making some lemonade here. Had a rather unpleasant interpersonal experience lately, and decided I needed to set some clear entry requirements (emotional maturity and communication skills) for people I let very far into my life. So instead of just chalking … Continue reading →

Making some lemonade here. Had a rather unpleasant interpersonal experience lately, and decided I needed to set some clear entry requirements (emotional maturity and communication skills) for people I let very far into my life. So instead of just chalking it up to “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt,” I actually GOT THE T-SHIRT! A friend is working on a better line art version which I’ll be selling online. But for now, here’s the concept. Whadya think?

(image)

You must be at least this tall to ride this attraction. Custom ordered from Zazzle.com. Better line art version to follow.




Associated Press opens North Korea news bureau, they’ll fit right in!

2012-01-19T17:13:24Z

No, really: Associated Press opens news bureau in North Korea | World news | guardian.co.uk. …As if the news business wasn’t already Kafkaesque. Well, AP is an appropriate choice for this.  Having done some critical coverage of several boneheaded AP … Continue reading →

No, really:

Associated Press opens news bureau in North Korea | World news | guardian.co.uk.

…As if the news business wasn’t already Kafkaesque. Well, AP is an appropriate choice for this. 

Having done some critical coverage of several boneheaded AP strategies in digital media over the last few years, I think they see eye to eye with NK regarding the dangers of criticism, and how to respond to it.

I’m not kidding: See the response from Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations, to a 2010 KDMC story I wrote about the controversial AP News Registry program