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Weekly Column

What Did You Say?: Bob gets an iPhone.

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By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

The Pulpit Poll

Poll: Will the current iPhone troubles be solved in this calendar year?

Yes: AT&T is building as fast as it can and the coming 2.1 firmware will help a lot.
No: AT&T is too far behind in its network build-out. Maybe next year.

Skip this one and see results

Like a few million other people I recently bought an iPhone 3G. But unlike a few million other people I bought TWO of them — one for my young and lovely wife. That puts me in the rare position to actually speak from experience about a current networking issue: what’s the deal with these iPhones? Is it the phone or the network that is causing problems? And the answer is: both.

Our experience with the iPhone 3G is not good, though not terrible. It is a fantastic device, if flawed. The main flaw is the phone, rather than the iPod Touch bits that comprise the rest of the unit. Voice service is not good, calls are dropped, and the iPhone won’t work places where my old Nokia N80 easily did. But my iPhone, oddly enough, works better than does my wife’s. This variation is how I know at least part of the problem is with the phone, not just the network.

But the network sucks, too. We switched from Verizon (I know you can’t use an N80 on Verizon, smarty-pants — I have more than one cell provider) which claims the best network but had the nagging problem of delivering the odd voicemail 7-10 days late. Verizon claims never to have heard of this problem but ask a few Verizon users and they’ll confirm. Now that we are full-time on AT&T we might blame the lousy service on the phones except I also got a Samsung AT&T phone for Mimi, my mother-in-law, who is on our family plan. Her service sucks, too, so it is not just the iPhone.

I’m sure AT&T has oversold their network. You can tell because the worst service of all is from one iPhone to the other. If the call doesn’t spontaneously disconnect half the time you often still can’t understand what the other person is saying. Service is somewhat better going to landlines or other mobile providers.

I’m sure AT&T will fix this eventually but I don’t like being treated this way. No wonder they are so hot to keep that iPhone exclusive, since half the iPhone users I know would jump to T-Mobile if they easily could.

Last week’s column about the population of CCIEs and global development raised quite a ruckus — a word I include to confuse the non-native English speakers who saw last week’s column as discriminating against them. We can argue a bit about the numbers and their meaning, but I think it is fairly obvious that: 1) Cisco dominates the Internet core router business, so this is a real issue no matter what your language, and; 2) CCIEs are NOT just network techs. It is an extremely difficult certification to get and typically costs in the neighborhood of $30-40,000 by the time you are finished, sometimes a lot more.

While it may be patently obvious that China and Korea will be more important 30 years from now than India and Japan, that wasn’t my point. Anyone can express that opinion. What I was trying to do was to show a reason WHY that might be the case as evidenced by this CCIE data. Why shouldn’t India be just as successful as China? Their populations are comparable and they both have good educational systems with large numbers of graduates. They both value science and technology. India even uses English as one of its official languages. Both have booming economies with plenty of room for growth. Well this CCIE analysis gives one empirical reason why it should be so. While the Indians are developing their IP expertise, the Chinese are developing their IP networks, simple as that.

Another reason to talk about this subject is because there is far too little actual thinking on the Internet these days. The blogosphere is full of opinions but not very much solid discussion of why things are the way they are. Agree with me or not — I don’t care — but I’ll always make you think. The whole point of this column is getting people to think and discuss.

Now to the problem from last week of how YouTube and similar video services can better appeal to advertisers. I foolishly thought last week’s tease might coax a few bucks out of the bushes at a time when I could use them, but no. So I’ll reveal my solution anyway, even without a reward.

YouTube would love to make lots of money from ads that would play before its 100 million videos per day, but they have had difficulty appealing to traditional advertisers, not because of the quality of the viewers but because of the quality of the videos, themselves. There is a huge variety of content on YouTube and while advertisers are willing to stretch a bit in what they’ll sponsor, they are afraid of making a mistake and sponsoring the wrong videos, like those that contain nudity or other objectionable content. Short of watching all the videos, how do we best avoid this problem? That’s what has Google scratching its GoogleHead.

It all comes down to the quality of the metadata — the data describing each video. I think the answer is obvious and is composed of three parts: 1) notification, 2) structure, and 3) standardization.

I’m probably listing these backward, but I want to get notification out of the way first. Whatever system YouTube chooses to manage its metadata won’t be perfect. There will be errors — the Internet equivalent of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” So there should be a facility for viewers to notify YouTube if they feel that there is a significant mismatch between the likely target of the content and the target of the accompanying ad. No condom ads before Dora the Explorer clips, for example. No bacon commercials with vegan cooking shows. Having a way to report such errors will diminish them in both number and importance.

Next comes structured metadata. It floors me that YouTube doesn’t enforce this already. If you ever took a journalism class you learned that the first paragraph of any news story (called the “lead” or “lede” — same pronunciation) is supposed to answer the questions who? what? why? where? when? and how? YouTube could use a form for each video submission that used these categories, possibly minus the highly suggestive “why.” To submit your video you have to fill in all five blanks. Leave any blank unfilled and your video bounces. These five metadata categories really ought to cover the gamut of describing most any video. If they don’t, or if they are improperly used, then we are back to notification and getting users to help fix our mistakes.

Finally there is standardization. Even within the five structured metadata categories there can be great variation in the meaning of the chosen terms. That’s why we need to standardize those terms. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I would rely on the best current system of standardized metadata, which is Wikipedia. Behind each structured entry would be those Wikipedia terms that would seem to be appropriate, along with links to their definitions, just to be sure.

With this system it would take a minute or two longer to submit each video, but what the videos were about would be much clearer to viewers and advertisers alike. Paris Hilton is a “who.” The Paris Hilton is a “what” or perhaps a “where,” though the system would probably force them to be separated. Either way you end up with a hotel if you want a hotel and a sex video if you want a sex video.

Now it’s time to recharge my iPhone (again).

Comments from the Tribe

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i liked that you had a blog about the gripes with iPhone and thought you started off honest and using language persons who are not techies could understand...so it seemed to be going good for your review..but you lost me after paragraph two!!! please deliver a more detailed blog about your experiences, as i believe having two in your household does let you have a very unique angle for making a judgement/criticism and so far from what ive heard you are right about the reception/call quality and the networking problems, so I am curious to hear more from you. Such as battery life...is it unlocked? etc..Have you tried it while roaming yet? With Nokia roaming works well manually or automatic setting..and you can get emails/SMS/MMS messages while roaming as well.

Here in Japan, we are experiencing the same issues with the iPhone as far as my friends who have a iPhone have shared.This seems ludicrous to me because this is a country where 3G has lived for over four years and while the iPhone is also sold exclusively by one company here they are not in anyway related to AT&T so what gives with these glitches!!? Must be the software and/or hardware of the phone itself.

I am researching the iphone because i am comparing it to the NokiaN95. I am in the market to upgrade from my old Nokia N702K (which may have a different model number in the states). I have had this phone for over 3 years and am satisfied with all the functions it delivers. I have dropped it and stepped on it and besides some early software trouble, which my cell provider kindly fixed for free, i have never had any problems since. I love the camera, which offers great resolution even shooting from an airplane! I have currently over 300 pics on my phone which print as regular sized pictures not the itsy bitsy sizes other phones offer. I can make videos and add music to them. I can make videos using the pictures as well as shoot video. I can record my voice and music. I can download games and music. I can surf the net although it takes about 40 seconds to a minute sometimes to load a page. I can send messages to email addresses. All of this way before blackberry or iPhone came on the scene. I trust the technology Nokia uses. And the security features are good and they work. I am assuming the new Nokia's offer that and more!

I am more into multimedia features for phones and the mp3/itouch features are a bonus but nokia offers the same capabilities plus video editing without having to download extra applications!

i would love to hear from you on which phone I should choose. And by the way do you understand why if the iPhone is better it costs 300 dollars less than the Nokia N95?

Koolgirl | Oct 21, 2008 | 12:52AM

I am also a two iPhone house hold. My lovely wifes phone simply does not always ring. On numerous occasions she will suddenly be notified that a voicemail has arrived, yet there was no call. We check the ringer and it's set correctly. So, sitting enxt to her, I'll call, phone does not ring. Every time, we look at each other, I call again and the phone rings.

Networks are different all over the country and I blame this on AT&T. Verizon is the best in Southern Illinois. I'm also greatly disappointed that I'm paying for 3G service which is not installed for over 100 miles. Why and I punished because I choose to live in a rural area?

When we got our phones, three actually, a plain jane "free" phone for parents, we transferred our previous numbers. AT&T changed us for our two iPhone and again for our two transferred numbers because they somehow thought those were two more phones. We had to get that bill amended.

We went to Japan for a few weeks and we purchased the 20 MB of international data roaming for an additional (I think ) $25.00/mo Guess what? AT&T billed us for EACH kilobyte of data we used and the bill on our return was over a thousand dollars. We did NOT go over our limit. We were well under using just about 12 mb. I've called multiple times to get those charges reversed and there is a note in the file showing that the charges are to be removed from the bill but no one at AT&T seems to have the capability to do so. We returned in early October, checked the bill online and I've been asking them to fix this ever since. It's the middle of december... They've taken to calling me at work about the past due balance.

I'm ready to send the damn things back because of AT&T.

But we both absolutely love the phones. Call connection quality, yes, is little lacking from our LG Verizon phone but we both nearly always use the speaker option of the iPhone. I love that. It often seems as if the call is not full-duplex. battery life is not a problem unless you use the heck out of your phone. Sometimes my wife calls all of the cub scout parents (7-14 calls, each 3-15 minutes yaking) and that takes a toll but I think it would most any phone. The iPhotos, apps and maps are wonderful. We are even happy with the camera. (it's not used as out primary camera, duh. It's a cell phone cam, not an SLR.)

Apple, please drop AT&T so we can switch to Verizon. They are wonderful in this region.


kelly thomas | Dec 08, 2008 | 4:08PM
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