Stop buying new smart phones!

Apple kicked off 2019 by announcing that iPhone sales are down — way down. Their letter to investors largely laid the blame on China (and indirectly, on the trade war with China) but more astute observers noticed some sub-text: people just aren’t buying the new iPhones they way Cupertino is used to.

Shocking, no? $1000 cell phones that are largely unchanged from last years model aren’t flying off the shelves?

When I was growing up, the effects of Moore’s Law were hard at work. I sold computers in college, and the joke customers would make as they walked out the door was “this thing will be obsolete by the time I get it home, won’t it?” At the time, they weren’t far from wrong. Just look at this chart that I stole from someone on the Internet — CPU speeds were literally doubling every year.

Thanks, random Internet person:

Then something happened: the point of diminishing returns. Just off this chart is our current home computer, a 2011 iMac. Its had a RAM upgrade and a newer OS installed, but 8 years later, that machine still does everything the kids need it to. And its not just the kids — I’m a professional software developer, and I’m typing this on a rebuilt 2008 MacBook Pro. Why? Because there’s no reason to upgrade. None.

Smart phones had their own curve, that arguably really ramped up starting in 2007 (I couldn’t find a chart to steal.) Like PCs in the 80s, there was a rapid evolution of features, capabilities, form factors and speeds, but their point of diminishing returns hit around 2015: Apple’s peak was the iPhone 6s. After that, they literally began removing features, and focusing more on cosmetics than capabilities (the camera being an exception with a slightly offset maturity curve.)

Of course, the drooling public was a little slower to catch on. Apple got 4 more years of grinding semi-annual upgrades out of the masses, but now even that group is catching on. Its not just China, Americans are having trouble justifying paying a grand every year or two for something not materially different than what’s already in their pocket.

This decline forces companies to look for new revenue models — because the “next big thing” hasn’t emerged yet (hint: its not going to be Virtual Reality). And that’s where you and me, and our personal data, comes into play. If you won’t give them money directly, you can be monetized indirectly — through harvesting of your data.

So, what are you going to do about it? I’ve written before about how the Internet could still be good — if we’d all stop behaving like sheep, and acted more like responsible human beings. You can similarly turn the spy you invite into your bedroom back into a reasonable useful tool:

  • Don’t buy a new one. If your battery sucks, replace it — even at Apple’s full price of $79, that’s a lot less than $1000 for a new phone. And if your phone breaks entirely, buy a refurb. You’ll love having a headphone jack again, and you won’t need all new charging cables!
  • Tame your phone: turn off notifications and location services unless you really need them. A Pebble or a Fitbit are a nice way to get critical notifications without needing to be tempted by the rest of your phone — keep it in your pocket.
  • Leave it behind: there’s a trend toward companion phones (my parents call them “beach phones” — but they live on a tropical island) that I really like. Its hard to be completely out of touch, but you can get a “dumb” phone and swap out your SIM when you don’t need constant access to email or Instagram.
  • Turn it off at night: “I use it as my alarm clock” is a dumb excuse for having a hot microphone and a radio next to your head all night: you can pick up an alarm clock at Walmart for $8 and you’ll sleep better.
  • Don’t use native apps if you don’t need them: when possible, use the website instead of the app — they get a lot less out of you that way.
  • Don’t buy one for your pre-teen. Today I learned that children at my kids school aren’t allowed to run on the playground at recess — but they are allowed to have a cell phone. If this isn’t a generational crisis unfolding before our eyes, I have no idea what is.

I’m going to end this with an anecdote, for those who think I’m being alarmist: I worked for a large online retailer with a consumer electronics division, back when Facebook was still a powerful and popular Internet service. We wanted a native Facebook app for our devices, and Facebook couldn’t be bothered supporting us (even though we could have re-used 99% of their existing Android app with only minor modifications.) When we went to the negotiation table to try to change their minds, do you know what they offered? Give us your customer’s buying data, and we’ll give you an app. Not content to know about all your relationships, conversations, photos and travels, what Facebook wanted most from us is to know everything you were buying too. (To its credit, the big retailer told Facebook to pound sand.)

Big tech companies don’t value you as a person, and they don’t make hot new gadgets out of altruism. They build these things to extract revenue from you. No one loves gadgets as much as I do, but be aware that each of these toys and services you add to your lifestyle has a dark side — if you don’t control them, they will control you.

So I Tied An Onion To My Belt – 2018 Edition

Another year behind us! Hard to believe this is will be our fourth in Ohio, and I’m past the 3 year mark in basically the same job — a record, for me! If 2017 was a culmination, 2018 was an opportunity to enjoy some of the rewards of the work we’ve put into carving out a spot for the Wises in the Mid-West.

Professionally, Shelby pulled in 2 awards for the product, another for the team, and one for me personally. At the same time, we started the follow-up effort, dubbed Sherlock internally. Its been fun working with two talented teams on stuff that has the potential to change an industry, and the recognition is nice too. It afforded me with a few opportunities to travel; San Diego, Sweden, and Poland were great, but going to Sydney, Australia with Nicole was the highlight!

Jon and Nic in Downtown Sydney

For the kids, Nic’s involvement in their school has been a real blessing, giving her the opportunity to guide their growth outside the home. Eli relishes school and hasn’t yet experienced any real challenges. But because of some funding changes, both Ben and Abi were launched into Middle School in the fall, and although some adjustment was necessary, they’ve both managed to find their footing academically and socially in the new environment.

Speaking of new environments, 2018 was the year we finally found a church home: a small gathering of practical and servant-hearted believers in a Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation 15 minutes from home. We served at a CMA church in urban Cleveland for our first 3 years here, and this was our second summer going to a CMA Family Camp. We find their doctrinal positions and missions focus to be roundly satisfying, and while no church is perfect, this one feels like home.

The best part of a good home, of course, is having a launch pad from which to take off, and we had plenty of opportunity for adventure — with 3 weddings to attend, road trips to Ontario, and a flight out West to visit dear friends and much-missed family. We spent nearly 2 weeks in Alberta and BC on a beautiful lake, and the mountains in-between, affirming our resolve to get out that way at least every other year.

Dock Life in Moyie, BC with the Wises and Epps
Seattle friends that met us in BC

For 2019 we want to maintain our launch pad, which is budgeted to include some plumbing work and a light kitchen renovation. Our cars are both about decade old and although they’re running fine today, we keep awaiting the day one or both kicks the bucket. And of course, travel is high on the list of priorities. In Ohio, kids are done school in May, giving us almost a month where the popular destinations aren’t too busy (although we’ll likely look outside the popular spots!) We have no more idea what the future holds than we have in year’s past, but looking back, its clear that the Lord is faithful, so as for me and my house, we will do our best to serve Him.

Cousins in Ontario at Christmas

Game and Watch

These are a few of my favorite things from 2018. Abandoned tech is a treasure trove of ideas, both good and bad, and always makes you wonder how the world would be different if a given technology battle had gone another away. Take, for example, this little phone: the Palm Pre3 (by HP.) Although HP had big plans for the platform when they bought the ailing Palm company, a change in leadership resulted in a sudden death for the technology dubbed webOS.

More than just a name, webOS provided a Linux-based environment where both front-end, and back-end (service) apps were written in web technology (namely, Javascript.) On the user-facing side, the first Javascript framework was called Mojo, and supported the phones, followed by Enyo, with support for the short-lived TouchPad tablets (and later phones.) On the service side, an early version of NodeJS provided Javascript for lower-level platform coding. This is interesting to me, because my own Shelby product has a similar architecture — although its backed by Windows instead of Linux.

Its arguable whether webOS had the right combination to make it in the Apple vs. Google smart phone war, but we’ll never know, because shortly after they launched the TouchPad, HP chickened out. In its short life, developers produced some brilliant apps for webOS, delivering them onto a friendly form factor that tucked away a real keyboard behind a smooth, svelt and totally pocketable phone. The whole thing is truly delightful, and a blast to write code for. Had HP stuck with it, would we have the surveillance state we have now? Or would someone have offered us an alternative to the penetrating and oppressive spying platforms we line up to buy these days?

Another delightful also-ran is the Pebble smart watch. Launched as a Kickstarter, Pebble was arguably there first. Using a battery-sipping eInk display, the Pebble could run for a week on a charge, count laps while you swim, thanks to its water-proof design, and get apps and notifications from any smart phone.

Later versions improved the design and added color, but kept compatibility with the add-ons and watch faces that a vibrant developer community created for it. Long before the Apple Watch provided a luxury status symbol for your wrist, the premium Pebble Steel lent both tech cred and good looks to the wearer.

Pebble was bought by FitBit, the distant second-place winner in the smart watch race, who, like the other purchaser in this post, summarily killed it off in a quick strategy change. Although HP did the classy thing and open-sourced much of webOS (then sold the rest to LG, who uses it in Smart TVs), FitBit went even further, and pledged a period of active support to the Pebble developer community as they took-over the Pebble services.

Re-launched as Rebble, most of the Pebble capabilities are up-and-running again, on community-run servers, and watch faces and apps can once-again be loaded onto your wrist. The Pebble Time remains an in-demand and highly capable smart watch, for a fraction the price of an Apple Watch.

This year, I wrote a trio of apps for this kit, with help from the communities that still back them. Stopwatch was my starter app for webOS, followed by Night Moves, which makes the phone fit your life (instead of the other way around), and finally I modernized an old app called mWatch, re-structuring and re-designing it as My Watch, to connect a Pebble watch to a webOS phone.

Early next year, Microsoft will block connections using TLS 1.1, in the name of security. This effectively cuts off a generation of still-useful devices from getting email from their servers. Much of the web is going the same way — ostensibly to protect us, but really to lock us in to a combined ecosystem of vendors that need to know what their users are doing at all times. This New Year’s Eve, I think I’ll raise a toast to all those hackers still keeping alive the idealized version of the Internet we once all dreamt about…

Plex on Raspberry PI with a FAT32 USB Drive

We’ve been storing our music in the Amazon Cloud for years, but recently they announced that they’d be dumping it (in favor of selling us music we already own through their subscription service). This is a bummer, because one of the best features of the Amazon Echo is saying “Alexa play Beach Boys” and having it just work.

Fortunately, a $30 Pi can fill this new gap. Installing Plex on my Pi was easy, and once I linked my Plex account with the Alexa skill, voice commands work great — although with a slight delay. The hardest part was getting Plex to see the contents of my media drive — a FAT32 USB disk for maximum compatibility. Here’s how I got it to work:

sudo addgroup pi plex
sudo addgroup plex pi
sudo chmod -R 777 /media
sudo chmod a=rwx /media/pi
sudo chown plex:plex /media/pi
sudo service plexmediaserver restart

Note that although the set-up instructions say to switch Plex to run under the pi account, I found it only worked if I left Plex running under its own account.