Articles by Daniel Bader

Save net neutrality and keep our mobile future awesome

Do your part to keep the internet open and weird.

I love to tell people what I think of a particular thing, be it a product or brand or service provider. I'll freely tell someone to go with T-Mobile as a carrier, for example, because it offers the best compromise between speed, value, and coverage. Rarely, though, does it occur to me to judge a provider based on its stance towards net neutrality, a topic that has a direct impact on the American people.

Maybe I should.

Today, July 12, is the Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality, where thousands of companies are taking a stand to support the current state of the internet. We at Mobile Nations stand with larger entities like Google, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of others in urging the FCC to uphold Title II regulations, which designate as telecommunication services, legally preventing them from changing the way internet traffic is sent, shaped, and received.

Net neutrality is a complicated topic — we have a small explainer if you want to learn a bit more about it — but the move to deregulate parts of the internet comes from a self-proclaimed libertarian FCC chair, Ajit Pai, whose desire is to see less government regulation around telecommunications services at all costs, regardless of whether they negatively impact consumers.

The onus shouldn't be on us, the consumer, to police bad actors. The FCC wants that to be the case.

In an interview he gave with NPR earlier this year, he said that instead of the arrangement we have now, which pre-emptively abrogates the preferential treatment of certain types of internet traffic over others, he wants to move to regulating on a case-by-case basis.

First and foremost, we want to make sure that all content that is lawful on the Internet can be accessed by consumers — that's a bedrock protection of the open Internet that I think everybody would agree with. ... But secondly, we want to make sure that we have the ability to allow all kinds of streaming companies, others who create content on the Internet, to be able to reach their endpoints, which is the consumers.

And so we can envision some pro-competitive arrangements that allow for video in particular to be delivered in an efficient way. And one could conceive anti-competitive arrangements. And the simple point I've made is that we can't predict in advance every single potential type of outcome — some might be good, some might be bad — and on a case-by-case basis let's figure out what types of conduct are anti-competitive or otherwise would harm consumers or innovators, and take action if we see something like that arise.

Pai's argument arises out of a firm belief that over-regulation leads to a decrease in investment and cites examples of how certain internet companies have limited wired broadband and fixed mobile expansion into rural areas over the last few years. He also believes in what he calls a "free and open internet" that is not shackled by the 1930's-era Title II classification that oversaw Ma Bell, a true telecom monopoly.

"If you act before the fact, then you're preemptively saying that we think the marketplace is forever going to be the same and we can take account of every particular kind of conduct," he said. "You could be prohibiting a number of pro-competitive business arrangements."

While Pai may be correct in an environment where meaningful competition didn't already exist, if we look at what's happened to the U.S. wireless market since Title II was implemented in 2015, we see a clear trend towards an internet that is more accessible, mobile, and competitive. We see companies like T-Mobile — a proponent itself of the end of net neutrality, mind you — undercutting Verizon and AT&T, pushing the former carrier duopoly to not only lower prices but to become much more transparent in how they treat their customers. An open, free internet also leads to savvier, more educated users, and the expansion of net neutrality laws brought the layperson into the conversation.

Perhaps the most vexing and frustrating thing about Pai's insistence that pre-emptive regulation needs to be removed in favor of a lighter regulatory touch is his placement of the onus on the consumers — you, me, us — to identify violators. "Especially in the Internet age," he said, "consumers are able to complain to the Federal Trade Commission authorities, the Justice Department, the FCC, other state agencies."

Right now, the FCC is forced to police the internet service providers on our behalf, to enforce regulations that prevent companies like AT&T and Verizon from silently and sneakily limiting their unlimited plans, as they once did, and not following through with broadband expansion contracts because they weren't guaranteed a big enough return.

Zero-rating may seem like a good thing, but it opens the door for a lot that's terrible.

The rollback of net neutrality isn't about making legal so-called consumer-friendly tactics such as zero-rating, which has become so pervasive in the U.S. that it's not clear whether people actually associate them with the movement anymore. But that pervasiveness denotes an insidiousness to how network providers approach regulation, always trying to find a legal maneuver around the problem. When T-Mobile stopped counting streaming music and video services against a user's monthly data cap, it did so knowing that the FCC would eventually hold it to account for its actions. It took a new administration and a libertarian, light-touch-regulation chair to drop all inquiries into whether zero-rating violated net neutrality.

While it may sound like programs like T-Mobile's Binge On and others like it benefit consumers — who doesn't want more data for free? — they have the potential to shut out smaller companies that lack the requisite size or influence to make a deal with a massive carrier. Recently, carriers in the UK began mimicking their U.S. counterparts. In Canada, such zero-rating programs were recently banned not just for their own sake, but to show the telecom regulator's commitment to reinforcing the rules of net neutrality.

Should Title II classification be stripped away from the service providers to whom we give thousands of dollars every year, such legal challenges will be more difficult to win, and carriers — even AT&T, which is reportedly joining the fight to uphold net neutrality — will be free to do more in the name of profit, at the expense of the internet we love.

If you want to do just that, you have until July 17 to submit your comments to the FCC about why a truly free and open internet deserves to be something Americans take for granted.

Join the fight to uphold Net Neutrality

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BlackBerry Mobile says it is taking 'measures' to strengthen KEYone displays

BlackBerry Mobile has released an official statement on KEYone display popping problems.

Now this is a swift response! After internet rabble rouser and professional phone destroyer, JerryRigEverything, put the KEYone through its paces last week, one of the main takeaways was that the display can come apart from the rest of the phone quite easily, as there isn't a lot of adhesive holding it all together.

After the video came out, I promised to do some durability tests of my own, and I'll summarize those in just a minute, but let's hear from BlackBerry Mobile, since it has just released a statement:

TCL Communication has a long-standing track record of delivering high-quality devices to our customers around the world, and the BlackBerry KEYone is no different. To ensure the highest quality in the BlackBerry KEYone, we used strong, durable premium materials and conducted rigorous stress tests on the device throughout the product development cycle to meet the real life use standards our customers demand. While the BlackBerry KEYone is being met with great enthusiasm, we are aware of the concerns around potential display separation on the device. Out of the thousands of BlackBerry KEYone smartphones that have been shipped and sold globally, only a very small handful of customers have reported this kind of issue.

Our teams are actively examining additional adhesive measures that might further strengthen and eliminate any possibility of display separation occurring. If a customer does experience this however, they're encouraged to contact us for a device warranty replacement.

The takeaway here is that the KEYone doesn't have a huge problem — only a handful of phones have been affected — but in either case, BB Mobile is "actively examining additional adhesive measures" to make sure this problem goes away completely. And if you've had a problem with the phone up 'til now, just contact the company and it will replace the phone for you under warranty. OK, that's great, but here are some of my findings (video coming soon!!) from my own durability tests:

  • I dropped and threw the phone around a lot and it took so much abuse (I had to throw it at a wall) to get the screen to break but overall it held up super well.
  • When I did manage to get the display off by actually bending the phone (on purpose) so the screen would pop out, I found there is adhesive in there. Here's what I wrote in the CrackBerry forums:

I took the KEYone apart... bent it hard and popped out display. So, interesting thing here is that THERE IS adhesive.... it's all around the edges of the display. Like a thin strip of black-ish caulking. If you watch JerryRig's video, there IS the same caulking in that video -- he's wrong to say there's "absolutely no adhesive" because there absolutely is. I just watch the video and you can see it. It's not under the metallic parts, but on the perimeter around the edge.

Could more be done to cement that display into place? Maybe.... but given the testing and the real "normal world abuse" I've given my KEYone over the past few months, don't think it's really an issue issue. Though given the occurrences of some letting go, I'd assume they do even more to lock in place. But if you own a KEYone already, I dunno.. I wouldn't worry about it unless you plan on twisting and bending the hell out of it. And if you do end up having an issue, I'm going to assume it'll be covered under warranty, etc.

So there you have it. BlackBerry Mobile is doing the right thing here, acknowledging that there is a small problem in a few units for some people, and making it right for them, and for everyone else.

Update: Here's the BlackBerry KEYone Durability Test Video

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Media "conditioned" to ask BlackBerry about handset business, says Chen

BlackBerry says it has a great story to tell that has nothing to do with handsets.

BlackBerry's CEO, John Chen, rebuked questions about the company's flagging handset business during a media Q&A at the annual BlackBerry Security Summit in New York City on Tuesday, saying that reporters have "conditioned [themselves] to ask me that question."

"If I come to you with a billion dollar software business with a 70% margin," said Chen, "you'd never ask me about handsets," which appeared to be his way of saying that the potentially high-margin software business will more than make up for the company's money-losing hardware venture — eventually.

"What we've done with this turnaround is amazing."

But more than anything, said Chen, BlackBerry needs to do a better job at explaining its new position in the market, overcoming the media's tendency to dramatically overstate the importance of hardware to its future.

"From a mathematical perspective, you have a piece of business (hardware) that will never yield the kinds of margins a software business will yield," he continued, "so the question becomes one of scale." Chen continued his oft-spoken refrain of promising to stay in the hardware business only until it becomes unlikely the venture will make a profit. "If [it] can't make money, I have a fiduciary responsibility to my investors" to get out of it.

In an interview with CrackBerry, Marty Beard, BlackBerry's chief operating officer and long-time colleague of Chen, cautioned the media against maintaining the popular, nostalgia-driven narrative that has pervaded the company for nearly 20 years. "We're a software company. We've always been a software company. But for a long time, the there was a tangible thing we built, the phone, that showcased that software." Today, while the phone business is still very much alive, it is no longer a driving force.

"At the end of the day you're a business, and you have to bring in more than you're spending," said Beard. "When John took over this company in 2013 [from former CEO Thorsten Heins], we were burning $1 billion in cash per quarter. At that rate," he said, "we couldn't have been around for long. What we've done with this turnaround is amazing."

Most critics of BlackBerry's recent performance "have never turned around anything besides a car."

For Chen, BlackBerry is well past its turnaround goal, and is now looking to leverage its extensive software suite to sell to customers who need overarching mobile security solutions. "To many people, it doesn't matter how much you've done right, because all they can focus on is what you've done wrong," he said. BlackBerry's biggest challenge, he said, is to convince people — often the same customers that bought handsets in the hundreds of thousands — that it is just as valuable, or even more so, as a software company.

Beard praised his boss, noting that most critics of BlackBerry's recent performance "have never turned around anything besides a car." That the company has had 10 straight quarters of EBITDA growth — handset write-downs notwithstanding — is a significant and overlooked achievement, he said, despite quarterly declines in revenue and a stubborn software sales outlook that failed to garner the customer base Chen hoped for the end of Fiscal 2016.

Beard pins a lot of his hopes on partnerships, which are both numerous and varied. Some of the biggest companies in the space, from Microsoft to Google to Samsung, joined BlackBerry on stage at the Summit, reinforcing the fact that the Waterloo-based company still commands the respect of the tech giants, even if the scale has been reduced to small security code contributions to Android, or integrating Samsung's Knox platform more seamlessly with BES 12. In a narrative controlled by BlackBerry, it is a significant shaper of the mobile security market; to others, it is a minor player in a sea of worthy partners.

Still, as Beard noted in our interview, BlackBerry is stable and focused, with a tremendously promising product portfolio. It just lacks the hooks into the consumer market that made its story so much more compelling for reporters to tell.

Of course, with BlackBerry likely announcing a new Android-based handset next week, that reporting cycle will once again reset, and BlackBerry will ride it until it is no longer convenient to do so. Such is the fickle relationship between tech companies and the media that reports on them.

Marshmallow is here for the Priv: Here's everything you need to know

Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow rolls out to the Priv today. Here's what you need to know.

After an interminably long wait for most — and a relatively short beta period for some — some Privs will be updated to Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow today. Curious about what's in the update? Here's everything you need to know, with the help of Michael Clewley, BlackBerry's Director of Software Product Management.

When is it available?

The Android 6.0.1 update will be available starting April 26 to BlackBerry models purchased directly from ShopBlackBerry. Those models include:

  • STV100-1 in the U.S. and Canada
  • STV100-4 in the UK, France

The update will roll out to STV100-2 and STV100-3 models (sold through carrier channels) beginning May 3.

What's the big deal?

Aside from the fact that it brings the Priv up to Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow and all it entails, there are some pretty nice features added to this build.

On a high level, BlackBerry has added improvements to security, to the Hub, to the keyboard, and to the camera. We'll get to specifics in a moment.

But more than that, after using the Priv on Marshmallow for about a week, it's clear that the phone's software has matured; already a fast device on Lollipop, the Priv now screams. Moreover, the UI's rough bits have been smoothed over, and the whole experience, from the Hub to the camera, feels just a little bit more cohesive.

About that security

"We are the world's most secure smartphone," says Clewley during an interview with CrackBerry. "We have all the native Marshmallow underpinnings from a security perspective on Priv, and we have only enhanced that now."

Clewley notes that BlackBerry spent a long time ensuring that its hardware-based security advantages — kernel hardening, including the application of Linux patches ignored by other OEMs and even Google itself; and on-device encryption — were equalled by improvements to Marshmallow.

Of particular note is the integration of DTEK, BlackBerry's app for overseeing the Priv's security status, with Marshmallow's new app permissions model. As in Lollipop, it's possible to see which apps requested access to specific parts of the hardware, but now, thanks to Google, users can actually disable those permissions.

Clewley points out that BlackBerry is practically the only OEM to keep up with Google's pace of monthly security updates. "I just don't think other OEMs care as much about security as much as we do," he says, pointing out that carriers more often than not make things too difficult for manufacturers to roll out regular updates, so they just don't bother.

"We've done a lot of work with carriers to make sure users get these security patches monthly, and many carriers welcomed that hands-on approach," he says. He also tacitly acknowledges that many of the bigger U.S. carriers have less incentive to push out regular updates, and that while the Priv is still the most frequent, getting a phone direct from the manufacturer is the best way to ensure regular updates.

On one hand, it's great to see BlackBerry so committed to regular software patches. On the other, though, given that Android N is only a few months away, its advantage over, say, a Nexus 6P with the latest version of Google's software may disappear overnight.

To that end, I ask Clewley whether, with Google releasing an N Developer Preview so early, we'll see the next version of Android more quickly on the Priv. He hedges, saying, "Updates are very complex for OEMs. They don't just have to wait for Google; they have to wait for chip manufacturers to certify their parts, generally after Google declares their latest software as gold."

In other words, "it would require bigger changes to how Android is effected."

More Hub to love

On the software side, BlackBerry has made the Hub even more impressive. Not only does it now support S/MIME email signing and encryption (you'll know if that's important to you), but for regular consumers there is now Instagram, Slack, Skype and Pinterest integration, along with the existing hooks for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

According to Clewley, many of these integrations came from direct user feedback (I begged for Slack integration on more than one occasion), but most were the logical continuation of the Hub as a platform.

Of course, unlike BlackBerry 10, the Hub is still a separate app that must be opened, and it still conflicts with Google's own Gmail app, but with Marshmallow it has become an indispensable part of my Priv life, and I wish it were usable on other Android devices.

Keyboard swiping

BlackBerry has added, for better or worse, swiping support on not only the virtual keyboard but the physical one.

What this means in practice is that if the Priv's width doesn't strain your thumb's reach while using it in one hand (I have stubby digits, so it doesn't quite work for me), it's now possible to enter text without lifting your finger. In practice, the swipe isn't nearly as accurate or reliable as Swype or SwiftKey, but BlackBerry has done an admirable job in its limited time.

More impressive, and equally strange, is the feeling of swiping on the Priv's physical keyboard, the act of which was previously reserved for moving the cursor around the screen while selecting text. It's likely not an everyday use case, but I can see it being used to impress friends — and occasionally enter a line or two of text.

But hardware and software keyboard lovers alike will appreciate the 200-odd new emoji, along with improved word prediction.

Can't fix a camera through software

Even when the Priv was released late last year, its 18MP camera, while good, didn't match up to the industry's leaders. Today that is even more pronounced as a new lineup of Android flagships, led by the Galaxy S7, show what is possible with a smartphone camera.

But BlackBerry has not stopped improving the software experience, adding two new video modes — 24fps capture at 4K, 1080p and 720p; and 120fps slow motion — to the phone's repertoire. The latter feature is found on nearly every device on the market, but the former, a so-called "cinematic" mode, according to Clewley, is relatively uncommon.

With Marshmallow, the Priv's shutter is slightly faster, but still below what you'd want from a flagship, while image quality seems to be about the same. As we've learned with many devices over the years, you can't fix a poor sensor through software.

A launcher to remember

BlackBerry's Priv launcher, with its support for custom icon packs, pop-up widgets and an array of app shortcuts, separated itself from the largely derivative feature sets found on most competitors' devices, when it launched last year.

With Marshmallow, that launcher has received a host of improvements, including better ways to organize apps into categories. They're small changes, but I still haven't reached Action Launcher, my go-to on most other devices — and that's saying something.

A longer-lasting conversation

As with all Marshmallow-based devices, the Priv benefits from Google's implementation of Doze and App Standby, which extends the uptime by around an hour in my findings. The 3,410mAh battery already lasted all day (and then some, most of the time) so it's a well-appreciated bonus that it gets better with Android 6.0.1.

While Clewley says that BlackBerry had to find the right balance between performance and battery optimization, he thinks that Google will continue to improve on Doze — as it has promised — and that there were some issues OEMs didn't take into account. Specifically, apps like BBM that rely on push notifications rely now more than ever on persistent notifications to ensure thats service doesn't get killed in the background.

Practice makes perfect

With BlackBerry poised to release at least two more Android-powered handsets in 2016, it's good to see the company iterating on its software in meaningful ways. Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow for the Priv is an example of a company taking its time to make sure everything is in its right place before pressing the big red button.

And while we're on the verge of yet another Android version, with its own set of user-facing security and privacy improvements, there's no question that on the face of things BlackBerry has a commitment few others OEMs have shown.

That said, questions still remain about just what changes BlackBerry has made to the Android kernel, with Clewley mentioning proprietary "special sauce" that, for competitive reasons, will remain private. And with most new Android 6.0-based shipping with encryption on by default, and companies like HTC and Samsung stepping up their monthly security update game, it's unclear just how much of an advantage, if at all, the Priv has over, say, the Galaxy S7 or HTC 10 when it comes to security.

BlackBerry would have you believe that the Priv's combination of hardware and software-level security improvements separate it from the pack, but many of these advantages are subjective rather than quantifiable.

In the end, the BlackBerry Priv is a great smartphone, made better by its latest software update.

More on the Priv's Marshmallow update at Inside BlackBerry