China vs. US Manufacturing Follow Up

Last week I described the experience of trying to find a U.S. manufacturer to build a consumer tech product and getting no response from most of those that were contacted. One reader summed up the column as, “Our problem isn’t China competing “unfairly”, it is the U.S. not bothering to compete at all. “

These are manufacturers that produce high tech products for others, mostly printed circuit board assemblies that get assembled into various enclosures with other components. They’re called contract or independent manufacturers and are used by companies that don’t have and don’t want to invest in their own factories.

A contract manufacturer, whether here or in Asia, has become a necessity for many companies that design complex consumer products. By outsourcing manufacturing, the product companies reduce their costs, leverage existing manufacturers, and get to market sooner. As a result, Silicon Valley hardware companies and China manufacturers have become reliant on one-another, the former creating the products and the latter building them.

(Refer to this excellent article by James Fallows of The Atlantic: China Makes, the World Takes)

If product companies are forced to look elsewhere to build their products because of the pressure to leave China, the option of doing it in the U.S. is bleak. It’s much more likely they’ll go to another country such as Taiwan, Vietnam or Mexico. The arguments for making products here, to create more jobs, is not going to happen without major structural changes as well as a mindset change.

Building consumer tech products in this country takes very different skills and require resources that don’t exist. They include the ability to find, communicate and develop a supply base around the world, since the parts that go into consumer tech products come mostly from Asia – the batteries, displays, optics, switches, connectors, cables, microprocessors, and plastic parts.

It requires developing the engineering talent to take a consumer tech product into manufacturing from a prototype, and provide the services that companies in Asia offer, often at little or no cost in order to keep their factories full. Skills such as design for manufacturing (DFM), packaging, logistics and supplier management. There’s no reason they can’t acquire these skills, if they wanted, which leads to the next reason, having the mindset to compete. In fact, as my story showed, some don’t even seem to want to try. Risk taking, so common in China, is rare over here.

Our manufacturing infrastructure cannot now compete with China’s. Much of it has been hollowed out and it was never built for consumer tech products. Our government promoted a manufacturing infrastructure to support the defense industry, while China created an infrastructure to build consumer products, with suppliers of every part located closely together.

China has always had a cost advantage due to a lower labor rate. But labor has become a smaller percentage of a product’s cost, often about 10% for products made in China. The cost of components is often similar, since they can be sourced from the same suppliers. One of the biggest differences remaining is overhead and profit. Chinese companies are satisfied with a 5% profit while U.S. manufacturers often want 20% to 30% and almost always have a more costly overhead.

Being able to get to market first with an innovative product is often more important than cost. This is where China excels. Because of their experience, resources, and work ethic, products take much less time to go from prototype to production. Companies can easily find manufacturers with the skills needed to build their products, because they build so many similar products.

With all that said, the U.S. can offer some advantages. It’s preferable for manufacturing to occur near where the design is done; it results in better communications, closer collaboration and less time traveling long distances.

Building products in China often require ongoing monitoring to maintain quality. Too often manufacturers there gain the business with a low quote, only to find ways to cut corners after manufacturing begins. While U.S. manufacturers are often slow and lumbering, they are less likely to cut corners.

Intellectual property is safer doing the product in the U.S., although I’ve rarely encountered any problems. Lastly, and an increasingly important consideration, is the added difficulty and risk in working in China. With the curtailing of freedom in Hong Kong, the increases in surveillance, and limitations on using the Internet, a time will come where we just won’t want to do business there.

It may eventually be possible to build products in the U.S. But it won’t happen by making it more difficult to build in China. It will only happen if we solve our own problems first that make it so difficult to build these products here. As the reader said, “Our problem isn’t China competing “unfairly”, it is the U.S. not bothering to compete at all. “

Tariff Wars and Tech Made in the USA

I’m often asked why consumer tech products can’t be made in this country. In fact, with Trump’s tariff wars, more and more companies are being pressured to look for local manufacturing. I’ve always been skeptical, having worked on more than a hundred consumer tech products over my career, mostly manufactured in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China. Few companies in this country have the experience, knowledge, and resources to compete. And that’s before considering the cost and time to market advantages of Asia.

I recently had a chance to test this assumption, really hoping that I could prove myself wrong, thinking perhaps I’ve missed changes to US manufacturing over the years. Just maybe things have changed as new companies have emerged from crowdfunding campaigns looking for domestic manufacturers.

A friend asked for help to find a local (Southern California) manufacturer for his client that was building a couple of ruggedized consumer products that involved optics, displays and electronics. They needed to find a manufacturer within a few hours’ drive to take the product from a mature prototype into manufacturing and build a few thousand at a time. It was the beginning of a new line of products for the profitable company that represented about a half million dollars in business per year, likely doubling in year two.

I followed the process that I had used in the past, mostly just common sense: Profile the kind of company we wanted with regard to experience, size of business, skill set, and ideally developing similar products. I identified ten candidates by checking business directories, trade show exhibitions and websites. I then sent a personal email to each with an introduction, explaining the opportunity, what we were searching for, the type of product we wanted to build, and the size of our business. In return, I asked each company to tell us about themselves: how they manage a product introduction, describing any relevant experience, and how do they charge for their services.

The email also was a test to see how quickly they responded and communicated – whether they addressed the questions asked and to evaluate their answers. Our intent was to look at the responses, narrow down the list to about 4 or 5 companies, and then visit each to provide more details and see their facilities.

But something strange happened. Of the ten companies we contacted, we only heard from three by the end of two weeks. Of the three, none answered the list of fairly innocuous questions, and, instead simply provided us their sales deck.

When I’ve done this with Chinese companies, if I had contact ten, I’d usually hear from them all within a couple of days, even from those that were not interested, to thanks me for reaching out.

I never expected to get this result. So, I called those that never responded at the two-week mark and tried reaching the appropriate salesperson. (Many of the contact emails on their websites were simply info@ or sales@ the company.) Of those I reached, three said they were not interested, one recalled receiving my email, but assumed it was a spam mail, explaining he gets a lot of them. I asked why he never tried calling me at the phone number provided, and he didn’t have a good answer. Of the others, I left messages but never heard back.

As hard as I looked, it was hard to find a company that builds consumer electronic products, from the circuit board to the finished product. And it was equally hard to find anyone that wanted to engage at any level. In our case, most of the mechanical and optical parts would come from China and be provided by the client. But few of these companies had much experience building a product for consumers and some were reluctant to even work with Chinese suppliers.

What’s the lesson? It’s hard if not impossible to find a company to build the kinds of products we depend on China to do. I’m sure there still are some out there, perhaps in another part of our country. But of those I surveyed, not only do most not have the skill, but they seem to have no interest and have little initiative to engage in this opportunity.

I also found after visiting several, that much of our manufacturing industry here is building electronic assemblies for companies that do business with government and military products. They follow a set of rules that add complexity and a lot of process when they take on new customers and products. Time to market is rarely a consideration as it is with consumer products. That makes our industrial base unsuited for many of the products that are built in China, where they are close to the source of the parts, have the relationships with their suppliers, and time to market is so important. But most disappointing was the fact that I found our manufacturing industry to be lacking in the skills we get from China manufacturers: excellent communications, strong initiative, risk taking, and a hungriness for business.

The Solitary Inventor

The solitary inventor once typified innovation in America. Over successive generations we’ve read about individuals who labored on their own in their workshop or garage to create their inventions. One example was Bob Olodort, a friend and business associate that spent his working life developing a range of unique products, often facing skepticism and criticism along the way.

I met Bob in 1992 when I was working for Seiko Instruments, the Japanese company that developed small printers for commercial use, such as in gas pumps and point of sale devices. Olodort had reached out to Seiko, looking for a partner to create his invention, a small, single-purpose label printer that would print a single label from a computer on demand. It eliminated the need to use a sheet of labels to print just one or the awkwardness of feeding an envelope through a conventional printer. His tiny printer also used software to automatically recognize an address on the computer screen to print the label with just a couple of keystrokes, an early example of using software to enhance hardware performance.

Olodort faced a lot of skepticism. Critics ridiculed the use of a thermal printer and using labels on formal correspondence, suggesting it was unprofessional and looked like junk mail. They said thermal technology was not suitable. Yet, like most inventors, Bob was undeterred, and dismissed the criticism.

Eventually, Seiko licensed the product concept and created the Seiko Smart Label Printer. As a recent hire at Seiko, it became my job to work with Bob to develop the product from concept to manufacturing. It was a contentious project within a normally conservative Japanese-based organization. But it had the support from Seiko’s U.S. management, notably Hiroshi Fukino and John Rehfeld, who cleared the path for the product’s funding from Japan and its U.S. development oversight. It was Seiko’s first product created and manufactured by its U.S. division.

The product came to market and was well-received. Like many products, its customers found new things to do with it, including labeling file folders, creating bar code labels, and organizing Rolodex files. This showed how one individual with an idea and perseverance created an industry that had not existed before.

Bob continued to do more inventing. A few years later I got a call from him telling me he was working on a new idea, a full-size keyboard that could fold into a size so small it could fit into your pocket. This would be used with PDAs, which were an emerging product category at that time. His vision was to replicate the same experience of a ThinkPad notebook, the standard of excellence for keyboards.

I was skeptical. Keyboards are made up of hundreds of tiny parts including keys, actuating mechanisms, switches and springs. I just couldn’t envision such a product. When he showed me his first prototype, it was even more complex than I had imagined. It was a series of key switches all mounted on a structure that rotated each key in unison into a vertical orientation, collapsing the keyboard into a stack of keys. It looked like a manufacturing nightmare, but Bob was undeterred. Like most inventors, none of these objections got in the way of his vision. He focused on the value of the end product. Issues like manufacturability, cost, and complexity were not reasons to stop, but reasons to continue. They were just more challenges to solve.

Bob and I eventually formed a company, Think Outside, that spent the next two years developing and building the Stowaway, the first truly pocketable full-size keyboard. It was sold under numerous brands, including Palm, Targus, Sony, and Nokia, and became the most successful accessory for Palm PDAs. All told, about 3 million units were sold with third year sales reaching $40 million. It was named product of the year in 2000 by PC Magazine and is included the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Bob showed once again how his ability to pursue a single idea with tenacity, patience and optimism, that by ignoring skeptics, could create a new industry. It takes a unique individual who is willing to work alone, focus on the end result, and to plow through the day-to-day setbacks to accomplish what he did. Few of us can do it, because we look for outside reinforcement and acceptance by our peers. Most of us don’t have the traits that Bob and other inventors possess that create truly breakthrough products. Many of us would have trouble working alone for months on end, as opposed to being part of large organizations that provides social support, but also often discourage individuality and taking risks.

Earlier this month Bob passed away after a long illness. But he will be remembered for bringing delight to the millions of users of the Smart Label Printer and the Stowaway Folding Keyboard.

A personal note from Tim Bajarin

I had the opportunity to work with Bob Olodort on the Stowaway Away Keyboard. It was a marvel of ingenuity and to this day is still the best designed folding keyboard I have ever used. For Palm, it was a godsend. While most people did use the Palm Stylus with Grafitti for input, the Stowaway keyboard made it an even more versatile productivity tool.

In the few years I worked with Bob, it became clear to me that he was the consummate inventor who loved working on new ideas and technologies and was passionate about the creative process. He represented the solitary inventor and symbolized the thousands of similar tinkerers and inventors around the world that have given us so many of the products we have used in the past and into today. He will be missed by his family and friends and by those whose lives he touched in the world of technology.

Throw it out and see what sticks

From the June 22 Wall Street Journal:

In the first 24 hours of the launch of an electric-scooter pilot program in the city of Hoboken, N.J., the local police department received more than 1,500 complaints and comments about the scooters, its police chief said.

Since the May 20 launch, a steady stream of complaints has rolled into the Hoboken Police Department. During that time, the department has also taken nine reports on collisions with scooters into parked cars and pedestrians, the worst of which occurred when an 11-year-old rider struck a pedestrian, who needed stitches.

“The number of issues about e-scooters has matched all other traffic complaints for the year, and this is only in a month,” Hoboken Police Chief Ken Ferrante said in an interview Thursday.

This is the physical manifestation of all that’s wrong with many of the tech companies, notably Uber, Facebook and Google: throw out a new innovation without preparing for or caring about the consequences.

While the new idea might be exciting, novel and even beneficial, these companies seem unable to understand or are too lazy to worry about the unintended consequences. Instead of thinking like a chess player, looking at several moves ahead, they’re like kids playing marbles.

The typical retort is that they never imagined how their technology might be used in ways they never intended:

“We never imagined that people could be injured riding scooters among pedestrians without a helmet, that scooters would be left anywhere blocking doorways or sidewalks.”

“We never imagined how targeting advertising could be used to target fake news to voters by adversarial countries during an election.”

“We never expected our data to be shared or compromised.”

“We never imagined that pedophiles would be going after kids watching cartoons on You Tube.”

“We never expected an Uber driver to attack a passenger.”

But that argument, being used by all of these companies, is wearing very thin after so many miscues. For Facebook, in particular, Zuckerberg’s, Sandberg’s, and the company’s reputation have plummeted. Yet the company is so big and profitable, they just don’t care.

When companies evaluate a new product or feature, they do it on a basis of its profitability. Will it bring in more revenue for the cost to implement? But if they never consider the cost to clean up, filter out the trolls, do better screening, and maintain a healthy environment, their profitability calculations will be all wrong. In many cases the cleanup costs, whether it be scooters, YouTube videos or Facebook feeds, are substantial. So substantial that they resist doing what’s needed because it makes their initial evaluation way out of whack.

And when they do react, they outsource the cleanup, as in the case of Facebook, to make it less visible to their employees who created the mess to begin with. They eliminate the feedback loop that will prevent it from happening all over again. They’re motivated to keep repeating these mistakes to keep their investors happy and keep their stock price up.

This is not how products used to be evaluated when consequences were taken much more seriously and how they are still done in other sectors of our economy. Hardware products have a cost to manufacturer, to test, and to market, but they also have a cost of warranty, ongoing engineering, replacing defects, and customer support. The ROI is more predictable. But with these new companies, caution and due diligence seems to be an afterthought. Their mantra is to throw out the product to and see how well it works and worry about fixing it later. But too often they never get around to the latter because their on to their next new thing.

The proliferation of scooters in cities around the world is just another demonstration, albeit more visible, of these tech companies’ uncaring and selfish approach.

What’s disturbing is that with these companies’ financial successes and ability to get away with so much, it’s likely inspiring others to follow the same behavior. Witness Boing’s approach to the 737 Max. They believed that they, too, could “throw out” their new plane with a design that had serious flaws without proper training, testing and an understanding of the consequences. And we know how well that worked.

Giving People What They Want — Longer Device Battery Life

This past week my wife and I vacationed in Oahu with our son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons, 11 and 14. Even though we were in Hawaii where we’re expected to relax, it was an active week with visits to a variety of small towns and beaches across the island and activities that included water sports, hiking, sightseeing and museum visits. Not surprisingly, the one thing we all had in common was the frequent use of our cellphones. The adults used the phones to navigate, find restaurants, take pictures, and check on tourist attractions. The kids used their phones for taking pictures and messaging their friends back home, as well as playing an occasional video game.

The one issue that we all faced was keeping all the phones charged. We were constantly looking for the right cords, chargers and back up battery packs that we brought along. While the world has moved to a single USB charger, phones still require three types of cords, Lightening, USB-C and USB-Micro, adding to the confusion. That was true in our case with our assortment of phones, including two iPhone 6 Pluses, a Samsung S9, an iPhone 6, a Samsung Note 5 and an iPhone X. I was the only one that made it through each day, using the new Apple battery case on my X. The others carried back up battery packs from myCharge and Mophie.

Everyone else ran out of juice before we returned to the hotel at the end of each day, some barely making it past lunch. And using the USB ports in the rental car is not a good solution because they charge so slowly. At night we all scurried to recharge our phones and back up battery packs and begin the ritual all over again the next day.

All of this highlights a big issue: For a device that’s designed to be our lifeline, battery life is still a major weakness of our expensive phones, creating anxiety and frustration that’s not being addressed by many of the manufacturers, particularly Apple.

Battery life continues to be the weakest part of smartphone usage, so it’s surprising that it’s the area where we see the least amount of improvement. We’re seeing excellent cameras getting even better and fast microprocessors getting faster. But we’re still seeing essentially the same size batteries becoming less effective with the increase in smartphone use.

With the most recent introduction of iPhones, Apple describes battery life in relation to last year’s models rather than anything more definitive or helpful, such as actual capacity in milliamp-hours that lets you compare. It’s their way of obfuscating the issue, just as they did by removing the run time remaining indication from the MacBooks.

At dinner one night I asked everyone what the one thing was they’d like to see improved on their phones. It was not the camera, display, or processor – no one cared about those. It was battery life with no runner up. It was such an obvious answer, that you have to wonder why more effort is not being done to address it. I’m not talking about new battery technology, just bigger batteries.

We’ve seen no significant improvement on the iPhones especially compared to most other brands. That’s probably because of their overriding focus – perhaps even obsession – to keep the phones thin. But for most of us, the only time we see our phone’s thinness is in the store and the thirty seconds between removing it from the box and snapping on a protective case. Typically, our thin phone is about 0.3 inches thick. Yet once in a case, it’s .4 to .6 inches thick. So, why not just add another 0.1 inch to the battery thickness and provide a 20% to 30% boost in capacity? At minimum a 6-inch display needs at least 4000 mAh to get through a long day, yet iPhone batteries range from 2100 to 2700mAh on most models. Samsung and other brands do better with more than 3000 mAh on most of their phones.

The other issue is that these smaller batteries need more frequent charging, causing them to wear out more quickly. The capacity of the best batteries drops to 70%-80% of their original life after 300 full recharges. In fact, my iPhone X’s battery is now at 85% capacity after a year and a half of use.

I’d love to see Apple offer a top of the line phone with enough battery life to last 12- 15 hours with heavy use. It would go a long way to reduce anxiety and to solve one of the biggest issues with today’s phones. It’s not as if it’s so difficult. Motorola’s Moto E5 Plus has a 5000mAh battery, twice the capacity of an iPhone, and is still just 0.37 inch thick. If Apple is looking to boost their iPhone sales, try giving users what they want.

Are Apple’s Interests Diverging From Customer Needs?

While Apple has attributed the slowdown of iPhone sales to being caused by a range of business and financial issues, not included in their list is the product design itself. Yet, I think some of the design decisions made over the past few years have impacted the iPhone’s popularity. These design decisions came about from a company that paid little attention to customer preference, usually believing it knew best. That’s what happens to many companies that are successful, thinking they’re smarter than their customers, develop a level of arrogance, and misread the market.

Foremost and symbolic of this arrogance has been the removal of the headphone jack that provided no consumer benefit yet was something everyone understood. Why, customers asked, would Apple make the phone less convenient to use, abandoning a standard that most customers relied on. It required users to abandon their wired headsets, switch to Bluetooth, or use a dongle that could be lost and often cost extra.

When customers continued to complain about low capacity batteries, making it difficult to get through the day on a single charge, Apple continued to make their phones thinner and more powerful, but with no improvement to battery life. People wanted more time between charges, not thinner and more fragile phones. In fact, most worry about thinness, because they buy a protective case.
If there was any question about a user’s anxiety of depleted batteries, just look at the proliferation of battery pack sales of all sizes and shapes, some now even built into suitcases.

In fact, this obsession for thinness has become Apple’s design language and mission across all of its products, leading to a wide range of performance problems, quality issues, and even recalls. And let’s not forget an array of over-priced dongles that now adorn the walls of Apple stores and comes across as another way to grab another $50. What’s notable is removing all these ports was not even needed. Numerous PC notebooks are just as thin and light as MacBooks and have a full array of ports. It’s more likely they were removed to save a few dollars.

Apple moved to facial recognition to replace the fingerprint sign-on and verification. But it required learning a new set of gestures and replacing something that users liked and worked well. Apple did an excellent job in implementing this change, and, for some, improved the sign-on process, but they did little to prepare their customers for the transition. Like so many companies these days, they never included detailed instructions with their phones and left it to you-tubers to produce videos to explain how to use the new features.

Even today I can surprise most iPhone users by showing how they can turn their keyboard into a trackpad by holding down the space bar. Apple just assumes users are savvy enough to learn new features on their own. Another sign that they don’t think enough about their users.

Lastly, Apple has not created a coherent product line for their phones. While most companies create a good, better, best product lineup, Apple has created a new, old and older lineup to provide products at varying prices. I would question whether even the biggest Apple fan can reel off the differences between an iPhone 8 and an iPhone 7.
Apple differentiates many of their new models by processor speed, but slowness on an iPhone is mostly attributable to the wireless connection rather than the processor speed. In other words, they tout the advantages on things that matter only slightly. Frankly their lineup is a mess.

This reliance on older models to create their lineup seems to be the result of laziness and lack of product development resources, even while the company has expanded many times in size and created a huge new headquarters. That laziness is exhibited by the lack of development across their line of computers and actually exiting product categories that offer potential for innovation, such as routers and monitors. The Eero home WiFi mesh network is something you’d expect from Apple to improve their customer’s experience. What are all these people working on?

Today you need to spend close to $1000 to get the current model of the iPhone or even more when you the add more memory and buy an extended warrantee. Apple took a huge risk in increasing its pricing to compensate for lower volumes. I guess that’s not working out so well.

Yes, Apple is facing numerous problems that are not of their own making, but that’s even more of a reason why their lack of innovation, and lack of attention to customer needs is now becoming more apparent.

When Companies Don’t Know When to Stop

I’ve been wondering whether some of the major high-tech companies among the FAANG gang, don’t know when to stop their “continuous improvement,” a term revered by the Japanese in the 90s when they continually improved their products. My observation is we are seeing “continuous degradation” instead.

It seems these companies might have too many engineers spending too much time on the wrong tasks, continuing to invent after the products have reached a level of excellence. I see one example after another and imagine how it might come about. Perhaps these companies have engineers that need to justify their high pay, so they do what comes naturally, keep coming up with new ideas. But in doing so, they run the risk of making their products worse.

Take Facebook, for example. When it allowed us to share vacation photos and updates with our friends and relatives, it was fun to use. I’d be able to see my daughter’s photos when she was vacationing in Hawaii every day, providing peace of mind along with a smile. It was much more effective and less intrusive than phone calls. But over time we all know what happened. Facebook added news that was full of fake and incendiary stories. It took more time to digest them than just looking at a photo, so Facebook figured out that news was better because we spent more time with it. And every change Facebook made was to extend our time of engagement. They took a delightful, pleasing experience and turned it into one that created anger, frustration, and was just no longer fun.

Another example is what Apple has done to its MacBook line. Five years ago, they had some of the best notebooks in the industry, far ahead of the competition. If you compare today’s MacBooks to those of five years ago, they’ve regressed. They have far fewer ports, no memory card slot, no headphone jack, no longer the beloved MagSafe power connector, and have some of the worst keyboards in the industry. While they attribute some of these changes being needed to make their products thinner and lighter, that’s not true, because many Windows notebooks are just as thin and light in weight, while still retaining the ports and excellent keyboards. The engineers should have left well enough alone.

Then there’s Google. We understand that their business model is to learn about us and direct more relevant advertising to us, and we agreed to have them track our travels in return for using Google Maps. We chose to use Gmail with its huge amount of storage and effective search in exchange for allowing them to scan email content to serve up more relevant ads. But now that they have perfected that model, they want to do more, that will make them evil. The group of engineers responsible for some of the Nest products was recently issued patents for putting sensors, microphones, and cameras throughout our homes to accumulate more personal information than most of us would be comfortable with. There’s no stopping Google until they know every tiny personal detail about us. They’re following the model of Facebook, and we know how that’s turning out.

Lastly, Amazon has created an amazing online store. While not the most attractive, it’s worked well. Rarely do we need to search for the right button, our choices are clearly laid out, and we can generally find things fast, read their reviews, and make a purchase quickly. But over the past year, they’ve not left well enough alone. Often now when searching for a product, you get the first page filled with paid ads, making it more difficult to do what you came to do. Some ads are even deceptive, as a recent article described, placing ads in the middle of a bridal registry, tricking buyers to purchase an item they assumed was requested by the bride. When making some purchases, I’m now constantly asked if I want a warranty or a subscription for much of what I buy; many times, those options are not even appropriate. And what once was simple shipping options have now become as difficult as choosing another product. Again, the engineers at Amazon seem not to know when they had a successful site and are now making it much more difficult to use.

I’m not against progress when it improves things that benefit the customer. But, in the case of some of these giants of tech, their greed seems to have taken over, messing up what once were excellent products.

Thoughts on Factfulness by Hans Rosling

It’s been years since I’ve written a book report, maybe decades, but I’ve just completed a book that I want to tell you about. The book, “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, is one of the most inciteful, irreverent, and fascinating books I’ve read in years. I discovered it by way of a post from Bill Gates, saying it was one of the most important books he ever read.

What initially appealed to me was its premise that things are really much better in the world today than we think. That’s something many of us would like to believe, especially during these turbulent political times, but probably are skeptical, as I was.

The book explains that we get things wrong for many reasons, including what makes the news, how we react to it, as well as relying on old beliefs. We learn pretty quickly how different the world really is.

It shows how we’ve rarely questioned or revisited our beliefs, even though much of the world has been transformed in recent decades. The book opens our eyes and provides reasons why we need to think in different ways.

It provides us example after example of how we are misled and confused about the state of the world and presents factual data that corrects our errors. The book is filled with graphs, charts and tables that add much to the author’s assertions and are often eye-openers.

What was most enjoyable was Rosling’s self-deprecating humor and unusual insights into how we come to our beliefs, why we think that way, and how we can be more objective. He uses numerous examples and stories gleaned from his travels fighting epidemics and conducting research around the world, meeting with numerous leaders.

Throughout the book Rosling reports the results of surveys he took among his thousands of audiences, asking simple multiple-choice questions about life in different countries. Time after time he points out how a chimpanzee making a random guess do a lot better.

One comes away with new revelations about the world and how much it’s actually improved in the past few decades.

While the book is focused on the state of the world’s condition, such things as income, living and medical conditions, lifespan, and education, it’s much more. It’s a handbook for improving how we think.

Hans Rosling, who passed away last year, was an Egyptian-born Swedish medical doctor, a professor of international health, and an adviser to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. His TED talks have been viewed more than 35 million times.

He wrote the book in the last years of his life along with help from his son and daughter-in-law, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, who invented a bubble-chart tool for displaying information in a very unique and highly visual way; that tool was eventually acquired by Google. They make heavy use of these charts throughout the book, including on the inside covers.

Nearly every page is filled with fascinating information that most of us are unaware of and is even counterintuitive. Rosling goes into detail as to why that’s the case, from explaining the motivations behind journalists, doctors and experts, to explaining the biases we each hold. He does it in logical and non-blaming ways. In fact, when it comes to blame, he has a fascinating section on it.

“The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened… It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power and agency; otherwise the world feels unpredictable, confusing and frightening.”

This is one of those books that you savor and don’t want to see end. You’ll think about things very differently after reading this remarkable book and might even believe that conditions in the world have never been better than they are today.

Facebook’s Erosion

Despite the positive reviews from the Wall Street analysts about Facebook’s ability to survive and prosper after Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress, I was not surprised to see the revealing data that Ben posted this past week. In fact, I found it somewhat refreshing in that it demonstrated how Facebook users are smarter than many think.

While I had no market data of my own, I had a strong sense that the company’s support would erode, just based on simple common sense and a basic understanding of what makes a product successful. There’s no denying that as a product Facebook has had much going for it. It’s been able to provide a lot of value to those that want to keep in touch with relatives and friends in a new light-touch way – something between a yearly holiday letter and personal interactions. Customers loved it and brought their friends on board in record numbers.

But then something happened. Yes, we all know about Cambridge Analytica and the Russians. As disgusting as that was, it raised awareness and an opportunity to hear what Facebook was going to do about it. Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress with all eyes glued to his testimony. Up to that point many of us might have forgiven him, as disappointed as we were. But in his appearances before Congress and in subsequent interviews, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg flubbed their test.

In all their appearances they both managed to create a distaste for their personal characteristics as they dodged the questions and responded with obviously rehearsed responses. They both came across as insincere, evasive, and at times unlikeable. They feigned ignorance and kept saying they’d have to get back with answers. And they said that trite phrase, “We take this very seriously,” but then never showed it in their actions. They came across as being well-rehearsed with canned answers, clearly overly coached by their PR team.
And it hasn’t stopped. Just this past Wednesday in an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Dr. Zeynep Tufekci wrote,

“Last month, Ms. (Senator Kamela) Harris further grilled Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, on this point, demanding to know how much inauthentic Russian content was on Facebook. Ms. Sandberg had her sound bite ready, saying that “any amount is too much,” but she ultimately threw out an estimate of .004 percent, another negligible amount.”

What Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg completely miss is understanding why people use a product. Yes, it’s the value that the product provides, but it’s also the company behind the product. Users want to like those companies they do business with. When they find strong distaste for the company, it doesn’t matter how good the product is. People will desert them.

As I speak with other Facebook users, just an anecdotal sample among family and friends, the consistent reaction I get is disgust with Facebook and its executives’ behavior, a loss of trust and an increasingly distaste for the product.

Facebook is no longer a place many feel comfortable hanging out. Users feel vulnerable to every like or click and now wonder how they’re being taken advantage of. It’s the same feeling you get wandering down a dark alley at night unsure of what lies ahead or lurks around the next corner.

With each new revelation after the Congressional testimony, we learned Facebook was doing things that were much worse than we even imagined then. They are not only tracking and selling their users’ data as we expected, but they’re also tracking people across the web, including those that are not Facebook users. Then we learned that they’re accessing members’ address books, ostensibly to help them better connect with their friends, only to harvest the address book data and sell that to advertisers without permission or clear disclosure. And most recently we learned that 50 to 90 million users had their logins and other information stolen.

Whenever they had the opportunity, they compromise privacy for profit without telling us or asking us for permission. With each action, they erode trust further, to a point where more and more are saying “enough is enough.”

Choosing to use a product always involves a balance between the product’s value versus its cost, whether it’s the cost to buy or the cost to one’s privacy. Facebook’s behavior has shifted that balance so that the scale now tilts in favor of just abandoning them forever.

I expect we’ll see an increasing number of users abandoning Facebook. These graphs provide proof that it’s begun when more than half are uncomfortable about the company and a quarter believe it’s become a toxic place to hang out. It didn’t have to be, but their executives thought they were invulnerable and greatly miscalculated the intelligence of their users.

Bringing Back Manufacturing Jobs

If this country wants to bring back high-tech manufacturing jobs it needs to do a lot more than taxing iPhones made in China. President Trumps’ tweet to that effect is far from his worst, but it’s about as ignorant as many we’ve seen. But it’s also an opinion that’s been expressed by others, often with good intentions to bring back manufacturing jobs to this country. And like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, that sentiment is not necessarily wrong. We have lost many high paying manufacturing jobs, and we should look at what it would take to bring them back. Too many of our citizens are underperforming in service jobs and struggling to make a minimum wage. Underemployment is a serious issue.

Having designed and built scores of consumer tech products in this country, beginning in the seventies all the way into the nineties, I’ve seen and participated in bringing more and more products to Asia, and continue to do so. I was instrumental in the shift of building products for Polaroid and Apple from this country to Asia, specifically in Japan, Taiwan, and China.

Our politicians seem to show about as much understanding of this issue as they do of other technologies. They simplify the cause and solution to a few tweets. If they really do want to bring back manufacturing jobs, tariffs are not the solution.

What is the answer? Here’s what I’d tell the politicians to do:

Understand why products are being made in Asia. Spend some time learning why China is such an attractive place to design and build them. Read this classic and timeless article by James Fallows from The Atlantic Monthly, China Makes, the World Takes. You’ll learn that U.S. companies build products there because of talent, speed, infrastructure, and cost. While cost is an important consideration, it’s no longer the primary reason.

The fact that China has become the manufacturer to the world didn’t happen without an immense commitment and foresight. Both national and local governments provided incentives and billions of dollars in investments to create the infrastructure that enabled it to happen. They built industrial parks, highways, bullet trains, libraries, high-speed networks, colleges, hospitals, and airports. They cleared the trees, tilled the fields, planted the seeds, and nurtured the growth that allowed thousands of factories to blossom, skills to be developed and millions of jobs to be created.

During the decades that it was occurring, our government stood by and did nothing. We failed and continue to fail to develop our infrastructure, encourage new development centers, and invest in new technologies. Just one tiny example: the U.S. ranks 28th in the world in mobile internet speeds behind Greece. When there is an initiative, it’s usually boneheaded, such a bringing back coal mines.

And we continue to do nothing. While being the manufacturing center for the electronics industry may have passed us by, we still can do with green technologies what China has done with computers and cell phones. While our governing party denies climate change and even questions science, the Chinese government is fast becoming the world’s center of solar technology and electric cars. By their mandating the move to clean energy to address the environment, they’ve incentivized the building of factories and the manufacturing jobs to build cars, build solar panels, windmills, batteries, and some products yet to be invented. Right before our eyes, they’re repeating what they’ve done with electronics manufacturing and creating new centers of manufacturing for the world, this time for green technologies. Like decades ago, they’re able to see the future and are investing to dominate.

So I’d tell our government if they’re serious about bringing manufacturing jobs back to this country, it’s not going to happen with tariffs or coal mines. But it could happen by looking ahead and seeing where the jobs will be created. Stop denying science, embrace it, support it and invest in the future. That’s the most effective ways to bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States.

The Challenges Facing Online Advertising

I’m fortunate that Tim and Ben provide the opportunity to write about anything technology on this forum. In this column, I want to address two different subjects.

Online Ads
We’ve been convinced that online advertising provides some of the most effective means to sell products. Moreover, based on the success of Google, Facebook and others, we’ve all accepted that premise. We see ads hundreds of time a day as we read the news, visit websites, each tailored to our specific profile and interests based on our browsing habits and other online activities. However, based on my own experience and many of those I’ve talked with, whatever algorithms or rules are being used to figure what ads to show us, are seriously flawed and could be much better.

Two years ago, I visited Harry’s website to read about their razors and blades being sold online. I purchased a starter set and a few months later subscribed. I rarely ever returned other than to check on a shipment. Ever since – for two years running – I see Harry’s ads on my computer, phone, and tablet, morning noon and night. Dozens of times every day. I’ve frequently clicked on the corner of their Google ad where you can report or complain about the ad, and I consistently select “stop seeing this ad” then select the option “seen this ad multiple times,” and get the message from Google “we’ll try not to show this ad again.” However, it seems I only see it more often. I spoke with Harry’s, and their solution is to clear your caches and browsing history, but that hasn’t worked. I’ve also added ad blockers, but these ads are so pernicious, almost like weeds, that they still manage to show up.

If it were only Harry’s, I’d chock it up to some anomaly. However, it’s happened with a few other items as well. The reward I got for buying a pair of Allbirds shoes a year ago now are ads for every kind of shoes most everywhere I go on the web (in between the Harry’s ads). What’s strange is that I don’t see many other ads repeating, as if Google has typed me as someone that shaves and walks.

One of the significant issues in serving up ads that are based on interests is that Google doesn’t know when our interests have been satisfied, either with a purchase or a decision to move on. The exception, of course, is Amazon that knows the difference between looking and buying, and appropriately tailors their ads with that knowledge in mind.

I suppose numbers don’t lie, and Google can prove that their ads tailored for each of us are more effective, but they are also much more annoying than random ads. In fact, they’re creepy at times, messaging us that they know where we were online or what we were thinking about. That can be jarring and interrupts us from reading an article or doing other work online. They grab more attention than random ads, just as they are supposed to do. More effective and more annoying.

A Facebook Solution
Having followed and written about Facebook and the mess they’ve created, it’s very discouraging to see how little Zuckerberg is doing to protect us from interference from the Russians in our upcoming elections. The latest act of contempt is not replacing Alex Stamos, their respected chief of security who, apparently tangled with Zuckerberg and Sandberg about being more transparent and more aggressive in dealing with their problems. Instead, Facebook said, they are spreading the expertise into individual groups. Anyone that understand organizational behavior knows that’s a way of diffusing responsibility and accountability and makes it more difficult to hold executives accountable.

Even if Facebook did take these threats more seriously, it might just be that their basic model can never be adjusted to let in the well-intended advertisers while keeping out the bad players. That’s a terrible thought as we approach November. Perhaps there’s only one solution to prevent a tainted election, based on the long tradition of banning campaigning around voting locations during on election day.

We should consider having Facebook suspend operations 30 days before the mid-term election. Yes, it may sound outlandish. How can a private company be prevented from operating and no one has the authority to make this happen. However, how important is preserving our elections and our democracy? Moreover, does anyone have a better idea that would be equally effective?

Lastly, if there’s a common thread with this column on online ads and Facebook, it’s that it may be time for an Internet and Facebook that’s supported by paid subscription rather than advertising.

Thoughts on Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

The new bestseller about Theranos, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, is a must-read for anyone in the tech world, particularly those in Silicon Valley. Not only is it disturbing in its own right, but it’s a reflection on Silicon Valley and not in a positive way. How could its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, get away with so much in the middle of the most technology-aware community in the world?

Holmes convinced most everyone she came in contact with that she invented and perfected a revolutionary blood tester that would obsolete the competition. She did it without ever having to validate her technology. When she finally did ship her product, it was nothing more than a competitor’s tester modified without the required FDA approvals, a product that never worked. Her fraud was so effective that she raised more than a billion dollars and convinced Walgreens to put them in their stores, exposing their customers to faulty test results and putting lives in danger.

What’s given less attention is how Silicon Valley failed to detect the fraud and gave Holmes her legitimacy. You might excuse some of her board members with no tech or governing experience, but you can’t excuse the professional investors and venture capitalists. You can’t excuse the well-known attorney David Boies and his law firm that are described as behaving like thugs with their attacks and threats on those trying to reveal the truth. And you can’t excuse the Stanford professors that are supposed to discern truth from fiction.

The people she convinced are a who’s who of cabinet secretaries, professors, investors, politicians, and business people. None of them ever insisted on doing a blood test to compare with a standard test before participating. None of them ever insisted on seeing an FDA approval. None of them ever insisted on an engineering assessment. None of them ever insisted on anything to confirm her claims. They believed it was true because she said so and because it was Silicon Valley.

Because it was Silicon Valley, major publications put her on their front covers and elevated her to the level of Steve Jobs. Because it was Silicon Valley, politicians flocked to meet her and take selfies. They all believed it was true because it was Silicon Valley.

Yes, Silicon Valley is sometimes known for faking it until making it get the promise out in front of the solution. But that’s normally an interim step done to raise money, and the outcome is either the promised breakthrough or a failed product that never gets released. It’s unheard of when a company ships a product that doesn’t work and that puts lives in danger.

Some employees and some in the tech community were skeptical about Holmes’ claims, especially when Walgreens made an investment but was never allowed to see the product in use. But the company’s protective bubble of lawyers, PR firms, promoters and VCs drowned them out for much too long. After all of this and the recent criminal indictments, a few Silicon Valley VCs still think she was wronged and blame her downfall on Carreyrou.

For those that take pride in Silicon Valley’s contribution to the world, the Theranos story is a black mark on the community and hopefully an aberration.

My Attempt to Switch From Mac to Windows

I recently wrote about my frustrations with my MacBook keyboard due, in my opinion, to Apple’s obsession with thinness. I found my MacBook keyboard to be just too difficult to use and unreliable, as well. Even after a replacement, random keys continue to become mushy and don’t reliably register. In speaking with friends using recent Macs I hear much the same issue.

For the first time in twenty years, it got me to consider moving to a Windows 10 notebook. I never expected that to happen, because I think the MacOS is elegant, easy to use and visually appealing. It also works well with the iPhone I use. The tipping point came with my spending 2 to 3 hours a day at the keyboard working on a new book. But when I casually looked at what alternatives were available, I was surprised by the latest crop of Windows notebooks.

Costco and the local Microsoft Store had computers from Lenovo, Dell, Microsoft and HP that were beautiful, lightweight, with none of the compromises found on the MacBooks. I had been under the impression that thin and light meant limited ports and a shorter battery life, but that’s not what I discovered.

I eventually picked a Lenovo Carbon X1 with its best quality 14-inch, 2560 x 1440 non-touch glossy screen. It’s spectacular – almost OLED like sharp, and intensely bright. The X! also had a full complement of ports, a memory card slot, and that terrific keyboard.

My biggest reservation in switching notebooks was moving from the MacOS to the Windows 10 operating system. It’s taken me almost two weeks to become comfortable doing most things under Windows, including a visit to the local Microsoft Store for a short class. Clearly, Microsoft is remiss by not offering the migration tools that Google and Samsung do to help iPhone users move to Android.

Switching means abandoning some of the apps that I’ve grown accustomed to on the Mac, such as Mail, Fantastical. Grab, and Contacts. I tried using Outlook for Windows, but in spite of watching YouTube videos from third parties and calls to Microsoft, I’ve not gotten it to work reliably.

I was able to access my Apple iCloud web client and its online apps, but they’re not very robust for frequent use. Fortunately, Apple offers a Windows app to access my iCloud drive, so my documents and photos were readily available. Office for Windows seems slightly better than the Mac version. I decided to use Google’s online calendar, contacts, and email clients. They’ve all improved over time, particularly the new email interface. But you’re still limited to Gmail accounts and I wasn’t able to add my Apple email account.

I found Windows 10 to be much improved compared to the last time I tried it using Windows 8. There are still vestiges of the old version with the large tiles that seem unnecessary and redundant, and there are hidden settings that take some searching to find, such as the Control Panel. But Windows OS also has much-improved aesthetics with a clean, clear interface with many intuitive features. The large Cortana search window provides a powerful search for help on the computer and the web.

I still prefer MacOS, which I’d rate a 90 vs an 80 for Windows, using my arbitrary wine rating scale. The Windows computer hardware, however, beats Apple by a larger margin, 95 vs 70. If I were an Apple MacOS software engineer, I’d be unhappy that my fellow hardware engineers are shortchanging the software by offering products that are well behind the competition. There’s no doubt in my mind that Apple has lost its edge with its latest line of notebook computers and is way behind the Windows offerings. I’m likely not telling them anything they really don’t know. Last time I was at the Apple Store to repair my keyboard, they suggested I’d be better off with a MacBook Air.

Apple’s Obsession with Thinness

While recently shopping at Costco, I strolled by the notebook computer aisle, all Windows machines, and stopped in my tracks. I was struck by how sleek, and compact some of the new Windows machines had become, particularly the Lenovo X1 Carbon with its matte black carbon enclosure and the Dell XPS 13 with its impressive edge-to-edge display.

Having used MacBooks over the past decade, I’ve paid less attention to the progress of Windows notebooks, generally pleased with MacOS software and tolerating the lack of progress of the Apple hardware: the mediocre keyboards, the loss of useful ports, and the elimination of the iconic MagSafe connector. I had accepted Apple’s message that I needed to give up these features for small and light.

What struck me most about these notebooks at Costco were that they still had most of the varied ports and their keyboards were so much better. They were still lightweight and compact. Compared to the MacBook 12-inch I’ve been using, the keyboards were like day and night. The Lenovo and Dell keyboards both had greater travel, a better click profile and much better response compared to my MacBook. Granted, I may be more sensitive than others, having been part of the team that developed the Stowaway keyboard for the Palm, but Apple’s recent spate of keyboards have been notoriously fragile and mediocre, as I recently experienced.

A few months ago, my keyboard had to be replaced. One of the keys failed to work, and I brought my computer to a local Apple store. A technician tried blowing out dust. He explained how the new keyboards are so sensitive, that just one piece of dust or a particle of sand can cause a failure. While in the past the keys could be disassembled, or as a worst case, the keyboards could be replaced, he explained that it’s no longer possible to do so on the new generations of MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

The key could not be fixed, and the computer was sent off for repair. I was surprised to learn that replacing the keyboard required replacing all of the electronics because they were all one assembly, apparently glued together. Without my AppleCare, the cost would have been about $700. That’s $700 for a problem caused by a piece of dust! For reference, a good quality keyboard costs less than $10 to produce.

I checked a couple of teardown sites and confirmed that the keyboards and other components could be replaced on the Dell and Lenovo, although not on Microsoft’s Surface computers. But replacing a keyboard or battery on a new MacBook requires replacing a major portion of the computer.

As a former hardware design engineer and director of PowerBooks at Apple in the 90s, I wondered how Apple strayed so far from creating products with good reliability and reparability, the inclusion of useful ports, and other features that once caused MacBooks to stand apart from their competition.

I’ve been trying to imagine what went through the engineers’ minds. After all, engineers I’ve worked with taking pride in developing reliable products that will provide great consumer satisfaction. What decisions were made along the way that caused intelligent engineers to design these troublesome products?

I’m convinced it must be Apple’s obsession with thinness. It appears to be an obsession so strong that it discards good design practices to create a design language that impacts reliability and performance. And not only has this focus impacted the MacBooks, but iPhones, as well.

It’s the same obsession that’s led to iPhones with underpowered batteries to make the iPhones thinner and thinner. The results are phones with lower capacity batteries that degrade to an unusable level much sooner than a larger capacity battery. With batteries dropping to about 70% capacity after 300 cycles, they fail to keep the phone running reliably, requiring Apple to slow down the processor or replace the batteries sooner than on other phones.

You’d think by now it should be clear to Apple that they’ve gone too far with thinness, seriously affecting the functionality of their products, increasing repair costs and reducing customer satisfaction. I would hope Apple realizes that these sacrifices are not necessary, and functionality should not suffer for a design statement that few care about or cover with a case that makes the product thicker. If Apple doesn’t address this obsession, they are providing a golden opportunity for even diehard Mac users such as myself to consider a Window’s notebook computer.

Facebook’s Declining Value

When I first discovered Facebook, I thought it was so clever and useful. The company created a new way to connect with friends and business associates, something that was less intrusive than a phone call or text and timelier than a holiday card. It enabled me to get an update from my daughter while she was on vacation and for me to make contact with old friends, business associates and schoolmates I had lost touch with.

I loved the product and, as an early adopter and tech columnist, I raved to others about how useful it was. But over the past year, its become much worse, at least when judged by the way I was using it. Instead of seeing a stream of messages from my friends around the world, I see all sorts of other ads and posts that have no value to me and get in the way of Facebook’s original value. The ads are understandable, considering the company needs a way to pay its way. But I also see stories that have very little interest to me. I subscribe to the new organizations I choose. And I don’t like seeing news from ghost sources with no news gathering organization behind them.

But putting aside these intrusions, my original feed of posts from friends is gone. Posts are no longer sent in chronological order; I see the same post repeated a day or two later for no apparent reason and missed many posts that I should be seeing. My hunch is I’m seeing an older post because I liked it, and someone later commented on it, but that’s just a guess, and really, I don’t care about a comment from a stranger.

Working in the world of product development, it’s rare that I’ve seen a company turn a great product into a mediocre one. Yet the quality of the Facebook product, by all measures, is so much worse than it once was. Yes, I know that Facebook spends lots of time to add features to extend the time we spend on the site. But spending more time is a lot different than spending less time to do what you want and then leave. In fact, the premise of Facebook making changes to cause us to spend more time is not necessarily a measure of how much we’re enjoying it.

When I get into a rental car and need to spend 10 minutes to figure out how the controls work instead of three minutes, that’s not a better experience.

But there’s another reason that Facebook has lost its appeal. That’s because I’ve lost all confidence in the company to address the issues with the Russian troll farms. It seems each day Facebook has another crisis and is clearly in cover-up mode. They use biometric data without permission, they deceive us on how badly Instagram was compromised, and they just continue to cover up. So not only have I lost confidence in the product but also in the company.

If they had been more forthcoming and gave me some assurance that they recognized these issues, I might have stuck around. And one more thing that’s so puzzling. Where is Sheryl Sandberg, their once articulate and outspoken COO? She was so impressive when I heard her on her book tour, yet she seems completely missing in action now.

It’s a shame because if they weren’t so obtuse and stubborn, I might stick around. But I just can’t. I’ve just left Facebook as have the rest of my family. All of us are just tired of the cesspool we need to endure to see those posts from our friends, associates, and each other.

Design Decisions and Smartphone Batteries

When I wrote this, “The Unintended Consequences of a Single Design Decision” on Techpinions almost a year ago, I pointed out

Shorter battery life – Making phones and notebooks as thin as possible and then making them even thinner in each subsequent generation resulted in less volume for batteries. But because the one dimension that reduces a battery’s capacity most is its thickness, battery life of iPhones and MacBooks have suffered. Battery life of iPhones and the latest line of MacBook Pros are well below expectations and are one of the major user complaints. So much so, the battery indicator no longer displays time left. And, since a battery’s life is based on the number of charging cycles, smaller batteries need more recharging cycles, resulting in a shorter life.

Well now we have a new consequence, the need for Apple to throttle down the processor to prevent inadvertent shutdowns as the battery deteriorates. Clearly, this was a design compromise Apple engineers chose, rather than designing their phones to accommodate the deteriorating batteries. Product engineers are very familiar with the behavior of LiIon batteries. While Apple says the batteries deteriorate to 80% after 500 cycles, Samsung’s battery division, one of the world’s largest battery manufacturers, warranties their batteries to deteriorate no less than 70% after 300 cycles. It’s not clear whether Samsung is being cautious or Apple is being optimistic, but engineers know that the battery will reach close to 50% of its original capacity within 3 years with frequent use. And using smaller batteries than most Android phones, means the customer recharges their phones more frequently and they reach the 300 or 500 cycles more quickly than the competition. All because thinness was paramount to Apple.

Essentially, Apple chose to shorten the product’s useful life. While the life could be extended by replacing batteries, that was never a major consideration, because the cost and inconvenience are too high for many customers. And they never communicated that changing the batteries were a realistic option.

While we can debate whether Apple should have been more communicative, their message was one most of their users don’t want to hear, that products are now designed to last much less time than they used be. Design engineers in years past typically considered 5 years to be the useful life for consumer electronic products. All decisions were based around this number, including how many times the buttons would work, the device would charge, or the mechanical parts would work.

When engineers and marketing managers set out to define a new product, one of the first things they do is to make assumptions about how long the product is to last. From this latest incident, it seems apparent to me that Apple knowingly discarded the 5-year life rule and decided that 2 years was more appropriate.

While companies can do what they choose, with this decision they may have helped their bottom line for the short term, but few customers want to knowingly spend close to $1000 for a product that will need to be replaced in 2 years. And while Apple iPhones have held their value so trades-ins made good sense, the value of used iPhones, may have just suffered with this latest news.

So, the news behind the news is that an iPhone’s useful life is shorter than we all expected and what had been the standard for the industry. You could see how with the iPhone’s popularity and customer loyalty, shortening the life directly relates to more sales. While it may make sense from a financial basis, it seems like it’s not the right thing to do.

A New Design Requirement: Delightware

Having been in the consumer tech product development business for much of my career, I’ve seen how the industry has developed a methodology for turning an idea into a product. It involves using a team of experts in their various engineering specialties: industrial design, mechanical, software, electrical, quality, and manufacturing engineering.

By the nature of their work, one of the challenges is to ensure that these activities are coordinated, and the team is communicating and working together to come up with a clear, coherent product, while each is off doing their tasks.

But, by the nature of this process, it’s rare that there is a focus on the customer experience and its impact on the design of the product. That’s just too hard to do with the team members focusing on their specialized work. While industrial designers and marketing managers come closest to influencing the customer experience, usually by creating a wish list and product goals, it’s hard for them to impact the day to day design decisions being made by the individual engineers, who often worry more about just getting the designs to work.

As products become more complex, the customer experience element is becoming a significant product differentiator, and its importance needs to be elevated to the same level as the other functions.

This area of product development is so important; there really should be a name for it. I call it “Delightware,” that element of the product that makes using it delightful and provides unexpected value and functionality that you never even thought about before buying. With the complexity and versatility of today’s products, it can be as important as any other element of the product.

A perfect example is the Apple AirPods. When I first saw them, I mocked, them much like many others: How strange looking, they might fall out, and so expensive!

A few months ago, while visiting an Apple store, I bought a pair to try, just to get familiar with them, thinking I could return them if they were as bad as I had imagined.

What I didn’t anticipate, and what was rarely mentioned in Apple’s promotional material, were features that delighted and surprised, it’s Delightware. When you remove an AirPod from the case, the phone call transfers to it immediately, but only if it’s in your ear. Open the lid of the AirPod case and the battery level is shown on the phone. Remove it from your ear, and the Podcast pauses. While some of these features could be found on older Bluetooth headphones, none worked as seamlessly.

For these features to work so well, someone on the team had to think through the design carefully to be sure it contained the right sensors, processors, and was properly implemented by each of the disciplines. Such capabilities are missing from most products, which often are hard to set up and confusing to use. 

Another example, also from Apple, is the ease of upgrading from one device to another. To move from one iPad to a second, you simply place the two together, answer a few questions, and the new unit is updated automatically.

Compare the Delightware of these products with that of IoT door locks, cameras, and doorbells that are hard to setup and don’t work as expected. I have two of these products that insist on sending me alerts when it detects me.

I’m convinced this area of Delightware will become the major product differentiator in the future.

The Supply Chain Impact on Product Development

Developing a hardware product is full of challenges. The process of going from a concept to a finished product is filled with unknowns and takes a lot of time. It’s an iterative process of creating a design, building a prototype, and testing it, repeated a half-dozen times or more before getting it right.

It’s one thing to build a working prototype, but it’s much more difficult to mass produce a product efficiently and reliably so that it meets the customer’s expectations. Maybe that’s why VCs prefer software investments to hardware. But from my experience, there’s nothing more satisfying than creating physical objects that can be sold in the millions around the world.

I recently researched the development times of about 50 consumer electronic products, ranging from smartphones to wearables to printers to audio products, developed by organizations of all sizes. These were standalone products and not simple accessories.

What I found was that the time from the initial industrial design to first customer shipment averaged about 2 1/4 years. Surprisingly, the spread was narrower than I expected, ranging from about 1 1/4 years to about 3, not counting a few outliers at the long end. Smaller companies were sometimes faster than large companies with many more participants, perhaps because a small team of experts can sometimes be more productive than large bureaucratic organizations.

Development time rarely was affected by how complex the product was, because the more complex projects had larger teams. One of the biggest contributions to the development time was the time from completing each design cycle to building and testing how that design functioned. Much of that time was related to fabricating parts, ordering components and just waiting. The second biggest contributor was changing the product requirements after the development process was underway.

What was also evident was that products requiring custom parts took longer than those relying on off-the-shelf components. But the lead time, even for off-the-shelf parts, particularly electronic components and displays, was unpredictable and often meant paying more to buy from the spot market.

But one fact stood out. For those products that were built in very high volumes, the supply chain issues became a major factor. Not only did it effect the schedule to get into production, but it also determined the design approach taken and the materials and the components selected.

A good example are the new iPhones. Early rumors predicted the phones might be made of exotic materials such as ceramic or titanium to make them much more durable. These materials require a considerable infrastructure to fabricate and are not easily scalable to huge volumes.

Instead of Apple, it was Essential, a startup company founded by Andy Rubin, that did just that. They created a phone made of titanium and ceramic. With their sales forecasts being a tiny fraction of Apple’s, they could easily find a supplier and develop a process to meet their needs. Apple was constrained by its own success.

When designers and marketers spec their products, they need to consider the components’ availability, not at the beginning of the project, but when the product will be shipped. But they also need those components during the product’s development, so the life cycle of the component needs to be carefully considered.

While smaller companies may have an easier time of supplying their needs, obsolescence becomes a factor in a product’s development schedule. Many components, including off the shelf electronics and displays, continually are phased out, while new components come online, but often not sequentially.

The larger product companies can more easily get access to their suppliers’ roadmaps that show the details of the phasing in and out of their components. Smaller companies, who may not even be aware the maps exist, are often surprised to find that, as their new product is going into production, one component suddenly goes end of life. The solution is to quickly find a replacement and design it in, often causing unexpected expense and delays to the schedule.

Once you understand the impact of supply chain issues, you’d dismiss those rumors about changes being made to the iPhone design 6 weeks before introduction. Any product being produced in such large volume would need to freeze their design and lock in parts and manufacturing processes many months before production begins. The slightest change would delay production by months.

As difficult as it is to develop hardware products, supply chain issues add to the challenge throughout the design cycle and after the product goes into production. And from my experience, it can be a major element in a product’s development time and in the design, itself.

Deception on the Internet is Nothing New and it’s Getting Worse

We’re just digesting and analyzing the impact to the nation of being exposed to untruthful news stories. (Note: I’m following Dan Gillmor’s advice and not using Fake News because that term has been hijacked by Donald Trump to refer to news he disagrees with.) And while this may be the most severe example of being misled by the Internet, it’s certainly not the only. In fact, the Internet is filled with cases whose sole purpose is to trick and deceive us under the guise of offering useful information.

One pervasive example is when searching for ratings on various products. There’s a vast number of sites that purport to provide objective analyses and ratings of products. The sites are titled with names such as but are often sites created to tout one product over another or to just provide a list of products with links to buy, in exchange for referral fees.

A search for “Best iPhone cables” finds one top choice (paid for position), “BestReviews.Guide,” a site that reviews numerous products. There’s no explanation of how they rate, but in their disclaimer, they write, “BestReviews. The guide provides information for general information purposes and does not recommend particular products or services.”

But pseudo-reviews are not confined to mysterious companies. Business Insider offers reviews called “Insider Picks.” Many of these reviews are filled with words but do little to explain the basis for their ratings.

What’s motivating all of these review sites? The opportunity to monetize them by receiving kickbacks or referral fees when someone clicks to buy, primarily from Amazon. You can examine the link that takes you to Amazon to see the code added to the normal link. Commission range up to 10% with an average of about 5%.
And here’s another example of deception and trickery on the Web. I experienced a problem with QuickBooks on my Mac and looked for a phone number to get help. There was no phone number in the app, so I searched online. Up came an 800 number, using Google’s search and a Website titled “QuickBooks 800 Help Line”. I called it, got a seemingly helpful technician, and he readily identified the cause of my problem. He said he needed to install the QuickBooks utility software on my computer to remove some bad files. As I started to allow this, I hesitated and asked if there is was any charge. He said there is a $300 charge for the utility.

That’s when I checked with my daughter, using a 2nd phone line, who, coincidentally, was an Intuit manager. She confirmed after a quick call to the head of customer support that I was not speaking to Intuit, but an imposter. I quickly hung up and later discussed this with an executive at Intuit. Their policy, like many companies, had been to hide their customer service number because they were not equipped to handle the volume of calls. She said they never anticipated what I experienced and, perhaps, as a result, their phone number pops up at the top of a search.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was doing a story on Google’s customer support, which is a major consideration when buying their new phones. Searching for a support number brought up many sites purporting to be Google support, but no Google number. One prominent site is “” with the headline “Unlimited Gmail support” and a phone number, and this paragraph:

“Phone Support-one can reach the Google Technical Support service by dialing their customer service number which is completely free of cost and our customer care is available 24/7*35 days. You just need to call on the Google Support Phone Number, and you will get all the solutions to your problems.”

Of course, it takes you to a GTech number. And notice the poor grammar.

So, these misleading support sites are still rampant, taking advantage of those looking for help and information.

This is probably not a revelation to most of us in the tech community that once laughed about the Nigerian scams, but like deceptive news stories, the players are getting more sophisticated at deception.

Teen Screen Activities Linked to Less Happiness — No Exceptions

Are smartphones destroying our kids? That’s the premise of an extensive article in September’s The Atlantic.

The author, Jean Twenge, has been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when she was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. In this article she describes how the use of smartphones is so prevalent among the teen population, the generation she calls iGens, and how profound of an effect smartphones are having on social behavior, friendships, sex and more.

Her premise, based on extensive research findings, is that this generation is more comfortable online than out partying, and while physically safer, they’re on the brink of a mental health crisis.

She found that the iGens hang out much less with their friends most days, with the frequency dropping by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. Teens are dating less, with just 56 percent of high school seniors going out on dates in 2015, down from 85 percent for the previous generations. And they have more leisure time but waste it, spending more time in their room alone, on their phones, often distressed.

With less dating, sexual activity has dropped, which is one of the positive findings. Among ninth-graders, sexual activity has dropped by almost 40 percent from 1991. “The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the previous generation.”

But Tewnge also found that the iGens’ maturity level has fallen. “Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds.”

While teen murder is down, suicides are up. “Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. … Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased.”

The author’s research found that “teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. … There’s not a single exception.”

All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
Lastly, according to the author, the smartphone is reducing the number of hours teens sleep at night. Experts recommend about nine hours of sleep, but that number drops around the same time that most teens get a smartphone, with a large percentage dropping to less than seven hours, considered sleep-deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991 according to the author. One survey found that teens who go to social media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep-deprived and those who use their devices with screens right before bed are likely to get less sleep.

The article, accessible for free, provides a lot more details including some revealing graphs. Whether smartphones are good or bad may be debated, but it’s clear they’re profoundly changing teen behavior.

This Article was initially published by PJ Media, LLC at

What New Features would Most benefit iPhone Users

With the huge amount of interest in the new iPhones, rumors are rampant about their features. We’ve heard from industry and stock analysts, tech bloggers and other followers of Apple, reporting on rumors from insiders at the manufacturing plants, accessory companies, and component suppliers.

The interest is well-founded. It’s been three years with no significant external changes to the iPhone. This is the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the first iPhone, and the competition – notably Samsung and Google – have made significant strides in offering competitive products. Most importantly, the iPhone represents almost two-thirds of Apple’s sales.

I thought I’d take a different approach in speculating what’s ahead. As a product design consultant, but, more importantly, as a product reviewer that examines many products throughout the year from the perspective of the customer, I’m going to offer what I think customers would value the most and cause them to upgrade. In other words, what new features do iPhone users really want.

The top item on my list for improvement is a longer battery life.  I’ve talked with dozens of iPhone owners, and the number one complaint I hear is the need to recharge their phones to get through the day.  I carry an iPhone 6 with a recently replaced battery in an Apple battery case and often run out before dinner time. Granted the newer models have a little more capacity, but still not enough to match the increased use of phones for the many new activities we do. Apple has erred on the side of thinness at the expense of battery life, and I hope they’ll fix this major weakness.

My second priority is the display. Apple has not improved its resolution and basic design for the past three years and has fallen behind the competition, particularly Samsung. I’ve been using a Samsung Galaxy S8 from AT&T side by side with my iPhone, and invariably I’ll reach for the S8 when I want to do any extensive reading of email or Internet content. The display on the S8 is much higher in contrast and sharpness, and the characters appear to float on the surface of the display rather than sit below it.

Third is the form factor. Anything Apple can do to provide a greater display area in a physically smaller package is a benefit to the user. More text on the display means less scrolling. Samsung has accomplished this by eliminating the bezels along the sides and going to a more elongated display that results in a significantly larger display area in the same overall package size.

Fourth is durability. If Apple were only to offer a phone that could survive a 36-inch drop onto a sidewalk and a long dip in the pool, they’d be well ahead of the Samsung S8, that’s one of the most fragile of phones. It’s all glass construction is as fragile as a Riedel wine glass. We’re already seeing added durability on some Lenovo Motorola phones and Samsung’s Active models.

I know Apple will do a great job with the ID as they always have. While a great ID can wow us, as the S8’s ID wowed me, it’s something that becomes a little less important after the initial excitement wears off. I’d much prefer an ID that incorporates the important functions noted above, than one that compromises those features for design sake.

Lastly, one of the most important customer features Apple offers is its superb customer support that none of their competitors can match. If you’re near an Apple Store you can often get service while you wait and get a wide range of assistance at no cost from well-trained, attentive employees.

But increasingly often you need to wait several days to get an appointment with the Genius Bar. I’d like to see Apple offer an even higher level of service, particularly for those that are not near an Apple store: deliver a replacement or loaner phone to your home in 24 hours or less, much like Amazon can do with an order.

I’ve left off other features that others are actively anticipating and even wishing for, such as wireless charging, facial recognition, embedded fingerprint readers, and curved displays. That’s because I don’t think they matter as much to the customer as they do to those of us that cover technology. People learn to sign in one way or another and give little thought to it once they do it a few times as long as it’s secure.  Wireless charging is a minor convenience that becomes less important with a longer battery life.

I have no idea whether Apple will do any of these things, but for the sake of providing what most benefits their customers, I hope some of these features will be included.

A Demo is not a Product

Many of us immersed in the world of consumer tech become quite excited when we see something new for the first time. Our imagination immediately races ahead to try to understand how we’ll use it and what products we’ll buy.

But our imagination rarely is tempered by the actual time it can take to turn a new technology into a product. We get ahead of ourselves with predictions about the impact that the technology will have and how it will change our lives. But from all my experience, it always takes much longer than expected.

Our excitement often leads to unreasonable expectations, impatience, and disappointment once the product finally arrives. The product is often less than we expected, and it may take several iterations before it does.

The time it takes for a new technology concept to become mainstream is measured in years or decades, rarely in months. Many things need to occur. There’s the time needed for development of the product, the time it takes to create awareness in the market, and the time for people to realize they have a need. Even then, a buying decision can take years more.

The world is not composed of people like us that are early adopters and can’t wait for the next new thing.  Most can wait and usually do. Sometimes years. There are many reasons for this, from not understanding the new technology, being cautious and skeptical about its value to them, being intimidated, not being able to afford it, or just not caring.

The table below shows just how long it took with other products.  The CD player and VCR, as examples, took ten years to reach a fifty percent penetration of US homes.

We can argue that with social media, the speed of information, and a technically more proficient population, adoption might move faster today. But our expectations are now higher, we’re more skeptical, and it often takes more to impress.

That hasn’t stopped companies’ efforts to get us excited about their new tech. We’re being inundated with news every day. Examples are self-driving cars – even some that fly, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality.

Much of the news is promoted by the companies themselves to raise investments, increase their valuation, or to scare away their competitors, all while exaggerating the time to commercialization

Just last week Uber announced an investment in a company developing flying cars. It played well on the national news that quoted a company official that they roll out a network of flying cars in Dallas by 2020. Last year Uber said they were already employing self-driving cars, when, in fact, they still have one or two employees in each car. Two years ago, Amazon demonstrated drone delivery. Yet these technologies are still years away.

Today it’s hard to open Facebook or a technology blog without seeing examples of virtual and augmented reality. We’re seeing demos from scores of companies around the world, each vying for moments of fame. We see all sorts of clever uses of how this technology will help us in education, medicine, shopping, and computing as if it’s just around the corner. Yet much of this will evolve slowly and take years to be significant.

If the past is any indication, the first-generation products will not be commercially successful, but more of a proof of concept. No one will wear huge goggles outside of their home. Enabling technologies still need to be developed, including smaller components, miniaturized optics, and faster processors to enable these devices to be practical. More importantly, new tools and an infrastructure are needed for creating affordable content.

Yes, we’ll see some small examples when we point our phone at a restaurant or a product and see reviews and can buy with a click. Tim Bajarin correctly pointed out in this piece that he doesn’t expect to see VR adopted widely for at least 5-7 years.

The point here is not to be discouraging about innovation, but to realize that it’s a long and difficult road from a prototype or demo to a successful product. The idea is always the easy part.

Reviewing the Tech Reviewers

When I read that Walt Mossberg would be retiring, it reminded me of how much has changed in the way consumer technology products have been reviewed over the years. I write this as one who has been on both sides: developing products that ultimately were reviewed and writing my own column for twelve years that reviewed products for the now defunct San Diego Transcript.

In the late eighties, as technology products began to appeal to non-technical consumers, the only place where they could go for buying advice was the numerous technology magazines. The magazines did a great job of evaluating the technical details of computers, printers, and other complex devices, with some periodicals even creating their own test labs.

But, for the most part, the reviews were written by those who valued a product by how many features it contained. The reviewers appreciated technological wizardry above all else. So, the articles were filled with graphs and tables with checkmarks comparing the plethora of features each product had, usually awarding the editor’s choice to the product with the most checkmarks. It was assumed the customers would find the products as easy to use as they did.

For the non-technical reader, getting through each article could be a challenge with the new terminology and abbreviations that were used by the industry. I remember trying to keep straight the different units of memory, data speed, and processor speeds.

As a product designer, it was frustrating to see a product reviewed and rated based on the number of features it had, even when many of those features would never be used. I saw how the magazines had influenced the design of new products. Design engineers and marketing people would tend to pile on feature after feature without much thought to usability. That made products take longer to design, harder to use, and less reliable.

In 1991, Walt Mossberg created a much different approach to product reviews that not only made it easier to assess a new product but also changed how products would be designed.

He would look at products, not based on the number of features, but on their practicality and usability. He was one of the first to understand that these products would find a much larger audience among those who might not be technically inclined and they needed to be assessed differently. He took a position as an advocate for the user and found a receptive audience by reminding his audience not to blame themselves for a product being hard to use because they were not alone.

When I was writing my book, “From Concept to Consumer”, I asked Walt to describe the attributes of what he considered to be an excellent product. He said, “It is a product so useful in function and clear in its operation that its user, within days or weeks, wonders how she ever got along without it. This is not the same as having long lists of features, specs, speeds and feeds. In fact, my rule is that, if a product claims to have, say, 100 features, but an average person can only locate and use 11 of them in the first hour, then it has 11 features.”

That was the basis for his judging products. Because of his ability to understand products from the position of the consumer, his observations were much more relevant and useful. From his post at the Wall Street Journal, his influence was widely felt. Companies knew his reviews could make or break a product or even a company.

Walt was also instrumental in advocating for the consumer beyond just products. He saw how cellular providers were restricting product advancements and compared them to Soviet ministries.

Walt, along with David Pogue of the New York Times, the late Steve Wildstrom of BusinessWeek (and a co-founder of Tech.pinions), and Ed Baig of USA Today, were among the first to review major new products. The four were courted by big name companies such as Apple, Samsung, Sony, and others so that their reviews would appear at nearly the same time. With their columns published in each Thursday’s edition of their respective publications, the marketing people, engineers, and company executives would frantically wait for the first edition to see how their product fared, much like the cast of a Broadway show reads their reviews the morning after opening night.

On a personal note, I always found Walt, Steve, and Ed to be thoughtful, insightful and fairminded. While one might disagree with their product assessments, they were always respectful and considerate. If they encountered a problem with a product, they’d get back to the company and get their comments but reported their complete experiences without omissions. They took their job and the impact of what they wrote with great responsibility. And they would not waffle but gave their opinions and backed them up with facts. David Pogue does do reviews but with a more entertainment focus.

In recent years, as gadget blogs replaced newspapers for our source of new product news, the number of reviews have multiplied, although the quality seems to have fallen. Many are done by those with limited product experience and often reflect their own biases without thinking from the position of the consumer. I’m often appalled at how inaccurate they are about products and technology I know well.

There are good sites with in-depth reviews, such as Digital Photo Review, PC Week, Tom’s Hardware, The Gadgeteer, iLounge, The Verge, the Wirecutter (owned by the New York Times), and many others. Many of these sites now derive revenue from their reviews by linking the products to Amazon to receive referral fees.

So, while we have more sources, they will be hard to replace the wisdom of a few good writers that avoid parroting press releases and take a very thoughtful approach to assessing new products, based on their years of experience.

Tech’s Failure

We like to think technology can solve our pressing problems but there’s one problem it has not been able to solve. It’s a problem that, if solved, would have one of the most positive impacts on our daily lives. No, it’s not related to health care, it’s not a new self-driving car, nor does it solve any life and death issue. It’s the problem of robocalls.

This is an issue we all understand, all experience, and all universally hate, regardless of political affiliation. If a politician made this his goal to solve and succeeded, that person could be re-elected in a landslide.

Yet still, after years and years of this intrusion on our privacy, it keeps getting worse. While originally a problem just with landlines, it’s now pervasive on cellphones and effects more than 250 million of us in the U.S. — essentially everyone with a phone.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, calls are already up 50% this year from four billion last year. That’s four billion interruptions that generally come at the most inopportune times. And few of the calls bring us any benefits. They’re either scams, solicitations, or some attempt to steal our money, identity, or banking account information. They prey mostly on the elderly and uninformed, yet they can sometimes fool the most knowledgeable among us. And they cost the innocent billions of dollars per year.

Robocalling has brought out the dregs of humanity, with callers impersonating Microsoft telling us our computer is infected, or an IRS agent telling us we need to pay now or go to jail. Robocalling can turn a pleasant evening into an annoying one, with many getting a number of calls throughout the day.

This problem is a demonstration of how technology, as well as our government, has failed us. Technology enabled the robocalling machines and, while politicians wrangle about divisive social issues that affect few, no one tackles a problem millions experience and would all be grateful for it to be solved.

There is little doubt that, with a concerted effort by the cellular providers, the FCC, and even the phone manufacturers, the problem could be solved. I don’t have the solution but it’s not hard to imagine how one could be found by creating a combination of a database, an app and some strong enforcement. Cellular providers and the FCC can identify and filter out calls from certain gateways, authenticate the numbers used for calling, and create a database of bogus numbers.

The Do Not Call List Registry the government created years ago has no enforcement power and many loopholes. It doesn’t work, yet the FCC still has a website that makes you think it does complete with complaint forms to fill out.

CallerID, one of the tools intended to help us screen calls, has been turned on its heads with robocalls now spoofing local numbers and fake identities to make us pick up the call. Many of the calls originate from outside the country where there’s no enforcement. Even legitimate companies, such as Stratics Networks, a company I randomly selected from those offering robocalling services, advertises how their robocalling service can “Assign custom local or toll-free Caller IDs to your broadcast.”

It should be an embarrassment to the industry that, while the FCC and the carriers procrastinate, a small company has found a solution for some situations. Nomorobo has been able to help users who use VoIP calling and/or iPhones significantly reduce the number of robocalls. The company has about 300,000 subscribers who give the company high grades for reducing or eliminated the calls.

Others have tried, including several companies offering hardware solutions (basically a box to screen the incoming number) and allow you to designate it as a robocall to block the number from calling again. But, with numbers changing randomly, these solutions aren’t very good, based on my experiences.

My own solution to eliminate these calls at home is to cancel my wired phone line and switch to VoIP calling, where I’ll have a better chance of screening out these calls.

Now that we have a new head of FCC, let’s see if he can fix this once and for all.

Has Apple Lost the Current Generation of Students?

When I worked for Apple in the 90s, there was a constant push to put Apple computers in schools so students would be more likely to become Apple customers for life. Now, nearly 30 years later, we read how Apple is falling behind in the use of their products in schools.

According to an article in the New York Times:

Over the last three years, Apple’s iPads and Mac notebooks — which accounted for about half of the mobile devices shipped to schools in the United States in 2013 — have steadily lost ground to Chromebooks, inexpensive laptops that run on Google’s Chrome operating system and are produced by Samsung, Acer and other computer makers.

Mobile devices that run on Apple’s iOS and MacOS operating systems have now reached a new low, falling to third place behind both Google-powered laptops and Microsoft Windows devices, according to a report released on Thursday by Futuresource Consulting, a research company.

Futuresource notes Chromebooks count for 58 percent of the 12.6 million mobile computing devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States in 2016, up from 50% in 2015. During the same period, iPads and Mac laptops fell to 19 percent from about 25 percent. Microsoft Windows laptops and tablets remained relatively stable at about 22 percent.

These statistics confirm what I’ve experienced firsthand. I initially became aware of Chromebooks in schools when my 12-year old grandson told me last year how many of his classrooms in his Bay area school were equipped with Chromebooks. He then showed me how he used it to do work at school, go online from his home computer to the school’s portal to check and finish his work, submit his homework assignments, get scores of his tests, and use Google Docs to write his essays.

When I asked about iPads in school, a product he uses at home, I got rolled eyes, as if I were in the Stone Age. He explained how less useful and how more expensive iPads are for the things he does at school. He said their Chromebooks cost $200 while iPads are more than twice that amount and have no keyboard.

But it wasn’t until I spoke with his 8-year old brother and my other grandson I realized how much more aware they are of technology products at such a young age — younger than any generation before.

While his parents waited for their older son to graduate 5th grade before getting him an activated phone (an iPhone 5C), the younger one uses an inactivated Samsung Galaxy 6 with a home WiFi connection, primarily as a game player. Yet, he figured out how to make calls, send messages over WiFi using WhatsApp and, when he wants to use it away from home for playing Pokémon Go, he makes sure his brother or mother is with him so he can connect to their hotspot.

When I asked each what phone they prefer, iPhone or the Android, both brothers spoke up in unison and unequivocally said Android. They each reeled off a list of comparisons between the two operating systems that would make a reviewer proud. They both prefer Android because they like Google Voice more than Siri, the weather app on better, and criticized the iPhone for its shorter battery life and no headphone jack. When I asked the 8-year old what phone he liked the best, he said the Galaxy 7 because it was waterproof and had a curved display.

Now, anecdotal stories from 8 and 12-year olds are just that but, taken with these new findings, it should be a concern to Apple. While we adults complain about the slow pace and limited innovation at Apple, it’s something apparent even to youngsters who take technology for granted, are more adept with devices, and have a technical proficiency that may negate Apple’s easier to use interface — the primary advantage Apple could offer to earlier generations.