Sunday, November 19, 2017

Malcom and Slash

Last night I was fortunate enough to be gifted two tickets to see one of the latter iconic bands of my youth, Guns N’ Roses. The GNR story is, in many ways, typical of the excesses of the time. They hit hard and flamed out almost as fast. In less than 10 years they went from the very top of the hard rock world to non-existent. They came and went, flashed in the news and went away for years until just last year, guitarist Slash returned to the band and their current tour, “Not in this Lifetime” took off. The Sacramento date was announced a while ago - I knew they were coming. I saw them back in their heyday. I was good. Pass. My girlfriend and I went to a lot of concerts this year, we were pretty sure we’d seen it all. And, it was GNR - not exactly on the top of my “must see” list. So… the seats were good, it was free and we had no other plans last night; with about a day’s notice we placed another concert on the agenda, thanks to an old and dear friend.

Also, yesterday, one of my very early rock icons passed away. Malcom Young, AC/DC’s driving and creative force died way too soon at 64 years-old. Those who are less familiar with the band might be tempted to say that his younger brother Angus was the leader, or maybe lead singer Brian Johnson (after original lead vocalist Bon Scott died tragically in 1980) was the driving force. While all played their roles, and while both brothers received writing credit for all those timeless hits, Malcom was the glue, the driving force behind AC/DC. The tweets coming from so many in the music business acknowledge that very fact and how, because of his song-writing, the loss is that much greater. Slash and the rest of the members of GNR dedicated Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to Malcom Young, but they did more than that. They inserted AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” into their set last while an image of Malcom Young was displayed bigger-than-life on the screen behind the stage.

I never saw AC/DC after Bon Scott died. While I fully acknowledge what Brian Johnson brought to the bad, and I recognize the iconic hits that were created with his vocals as just that - real, classic, rock - I was just too connected to Bon Scott as the voice of AC/DC. I could not let that go. A lot of rock stars - my heroes - have passed in the many years since I came of age. Some died due to their own excesses, their hubris; others, like Malcom Young, died due to more natural causes, even if those causes came at an unnaturally young age. There have been many, far too many to name, but Bon Scott hit me like none other until just recently when Tom Petty died of cardiac arrest, also young at 66 years old. However, I did see AC/DC twice in 1979 and I remember it like it was yesterday. Every one of AC/DC’s early albums, up to and including the first two Brian Johnson albums, are on my iPod, always on whatever playlist I have going.

Guns N’ Roses were never what so many other bands were (or are) to me. I wasn’t too concerned about missing the show. It just didn’t really matter to me, especially since the last concert I saw was at the same venue - and that was none other than Tom Petty just a couple of weeks before he died. I like GNR, I liked them enough to see them in their heyday, but my expectations last night were not high. I was blown away. They were tight, the musicianship was better than it was 30 years ago and Axl Rose, whose excesses are (or were) the stuff of legend, belted out his lyrics like a man half his age. All told, the band played a three-and-a-half-hour set - straight through without a break. And, to be clear, with three original members (Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagen), this is Guns N’ Roses, despite additional or new personnel. Too many “classic” touring bands have just one or no original members. I was impressed, and after all the performances I’ve seen this year, that is saying something.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

It's Been Real, It's Been Nice, But it Hasn't Been Real Nice

My 17-year love/hate relationship with AT&T is almost over. I just ported the last phone left on that account over to Verizon; now the number that I've had for more than 10 years is back online. All that is left is a lonely iPad Mini, and it will be disconnected in a week when this current billing cycle comes to an end. Of course, AT&T had a lovely parting gift for me - more of the incompetence I have come to expect from them. But the truth is the wheels were already in motion, this decision was made months ago. This is just the end of the end.

However, from a customer service, technical competence/incompetence perspective, Verizon's performance has not been stellar. In fact, it has been - in just three months - a microcosm of AT&T's. I am not impressed. I didn't move because I figured they would embrace my business or my money with any more enthusiasm than AT&T did. I moved my service because of physics. The technology that CDMA networks use (Verizon, Sprint, Xfinity, etc.) has a larger cellular footprint than GSM networks (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.) do. For AT&T to have the same coverage as Verizon, they would have to have more towers, more cellular sites. In urban areas, it's not an issue. In rural areas, it is. Guess where I ride my bike - a lot?

My history with AT&T predates this particular entity which is now called AT&T. The last piece of the once mighty AT&T that still bore the name was AT&T Wireless, a competitor of Cingular. Cingular was a joint venture of two of the "Baby Bells," SBC and Bell South. Both of those two companies, once only regional phone companies after AT&T's break-up, were swallowing up smaller local systems and expanding. SBC was the parent company of both Pacific Bell and Nevada Bell - each with its own new-at-the-time GSM cell service. SBC finally bought Bell South and then AT&T wireless, thus owning the AT&T name. It also ended what was left of the original AT&T.

The coagulation of the CDMA networks was similar, but since I was not working with them as a dealer, my knowledge is less extensive. Dealer? Yes, I activated my own Pac Bell Wireless account way back sometime in 1999 or 2000 - my "comp code" was SA-151. The company I worked for, Cellcom International, was a chain of Pac Bell Wireless/Nevada Bell Wireless turned Cingular stores in the Reno/Tahoe/Truckee area. I ran the Truckee store. When I started, text messaging was a brand-new thing, but the GSM technology in Europe was way ahead of the Johnny-come-lately United States. However, because of that, I was able to find some of their software and adapted it for our benefit. We were doing things with our phones that no one else in the US was doing. It was a geek fest to be sure, but it was one of the best, most fun jobs I ever had. My boss and the owner were über-cool and allowed me the freedom to fuck around with the phones in ways that produced some of what we take for granted now - things like custom ring-tones and screen images.

Verizon is what Cellular One, GTE Mobilnet and others became. They were based on the new-at-the-time CDMA technology developed by Qualcom. While it was GSM that most of the rest of the world adopted, CDMA has a serious foothold in the US - and it has some advantages (and some disadvantages) when compared to GSM. GSM is, in fact, the world standard, but the CDMA market in the US is huge and it’s not going anywhere. It’s also not compatible with GSM - the two technologies don’t “talk” to each other. Some phones have both technologies built in. For instance, all Apple iPhones from the 7-series up are built in two versions. A GSM only version like the one sold through AT&T - it is Apple’s “world phone” because it works on all GSM networks worldwide. They build many more of it than they do the CDMA version that is for the US only. However, that version also works with GSM networks. In simpler terms, a Verizon iPhone will work with an AT&T SIM chip, but an AT&T iPhone will not work with a Verizon SIM chip. Trust me, I learned that the expensive way.

All of this history doesn’t change the fact that way back when I was selling phones, it wasn’t really the phone or the tech I was selling. I was selling service. When my customers had an issue, they knew they could come to me to solve it. And I always did. When GSM was new in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, the coverage was not as good as the competition, all of whom could access the old analog cellular system. We could not, we were digital only and while that gave us a serious technological advantage, we had a major infrastructure disadvantage. Yet I blew away my quota (usually double what was expected) every month. It wasn’t the phones or the system that I was selling. I was selling service and, unfortunately, the bigger these companies get, the less they care about us.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Smartest Smart Phone

The first iPhone was released in June, 2007. At the time, I was using a Blackberry, what was considered to be the most advanced phone of the time. It was not, however, the first "smart phone" I ever owned. A few years earlier, Nokia released its version of a smart phone - a phone that could not only send and receive email, but one that could also access the new-at-the-time World Wide Web - about ten years before the iPhone. The Nokia 9000 Communicator is sometimes recognized as the second smart phone, behind HP's hybridization of their palmtop computer with a Nokia phone. Without splitting too many hairs, it's safe to say the Nokia 9000 was a the first fully integrated smart phone. And I had one in 1999. I was working for a small cellular retailer and the rep from Nokia gave me one. It had already been superseded by a more advanced model, but it did what no cellular device before it could.

Fast-forward through a series of excellent Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola phones, each with more features and more power, when the Blackberry emerged as the first phone that could really do email well. It also had a full QWERTY keyboard. That was my phone when we rang in 2007. When the first iPhone launched, I was impressed, but not to the point of running out to get one. I didn't even bother to go to a store to see one as I was happy with my Blackberry. It had some web capability (remember that the web was far less robust than it is now) and I had no "need" for any of the other stuff the iPhone offered. That word, "need," can be interpreted in a number of ways, however, and part of the genius of Steven Jobs was not just to foresee what the market would want, but to actually create that need.

It was not until I actually held one in my hand that I needed one. Okay, I wanted one. The design was beautiful, the engineering was precise and the interface was pure magic. It happened at a vocational event for a local high school while I was working as a reporter at the Colfax Record, manning our information table. The representative at a neighboring table had one and was using the exquisitely soft microfiber cloth that came with every iPhone to wipe her already pristine devise. It was more than just mere adoration, she looked as though she truly loved this handheld device. And she actually let me hold it, just for a minute. It was hefty, solid, not at all chintzy like so many cell phones had become. It was sleek, glimmering and tight; every seem, every joint and every transition was perfect and as an entire unit, it was in perfect harmony with itself. Nothing didn’t belong. When I handed it back, she immediately wiped off whatever fingerprints I might have left and set it down in front of her, gazing upon it.

I bought my first iPhone days later, but I should make a couple of things clear. First, I am exaggerating my exposition neighbor’s adulation. It was certainly novelty, but her love for her iPhone was nothing like I just described it. However, the beauty and engineering of this material thing should not be underestimated. It was exactly as I described it and, without getting too ahead of myself, so has every iPhone since – right up to my current and brand new iPhone X. At the time, I was transitioning over to from PC to Apple Mac computers as well. While the Apple product über-integration wasn’t a “thing” yet, the quality and stability of Mac OSX was becoming legendary. My Blackberry served its purpose, it did email really, really well and I held it up as the gold-standard of its time – I still do. But that first iPhone, archaic by today’s standards, did email as well, but it also did so much more.

Since that first iPhone, I have upgraded to every major version since. I have been an early adopter and sometimes, like this time, a first adopter. Once, and only once, I did not pre-order and actually stood in the ridiculously long release day line at the Apple store. It was not all that – it is not an experience I’ll ever repeat. I do not have to be the first kid on my block with a new toy. That experience revealed the ego attached and also that, for me, it’s not about, “hey, look what I have and you don’t.” I like my toys, but they don’t define me. And my newest toy? Yes, I like it, too. The iPhone X is a step apart from and beyond what the iPhone has been for the past several generations and, in one key respect, beyond all iPhones since the very first.

There is no “home” button. Actually, the home button on the iPhone 7 and 8 is just a “virtual button,” a mere indentation in the glass that resembles a button, but the “click” and the feel are simulated, there is no actual button. But the iPhone X dispenses with any pretense, initiating new conventions for accessing the contents and linkages in the flagship device. Personally, it was a natural progression, an outgrowth of one convention to another. It did not take long at all to “get used” to it. Indeed, it was as though I already was. The new conventions – swiping up and such – are already part of how the later generations of iPhones operate. The iPhone X just takes it a step further.

Regarding the phone itself – it’s an iPhone. It works and it works exceedingly well. This one is faster and sleeker than its processors. The display is magnificent, but to really appreciate it, lay it next to an iPhone 7 Plus (which also has an excellent display). It is truly remarkably realistic. I do have just one gripe, if it can even be called that. While the screen is taller than the “Plus” versions of the iPhones 6, 7 and 8, it is a little narrower. I wished they would have kept the width of the “Plus” version phones. Having said that, it is nice to have a phone with a larger overall screen fit in my hand. As much as I loved my iPhone 6 Plus and 7 Plus, it was a big phone.

I have more than a few friends asking if it’s worth it to go with the iPhone X or settle for an iPhone 8. While I have no direct experience with an 8 (however, both my son and my girlfriend have an iPhone 8 Plus), I think the answer is couched in the "need vs. want paradigm." The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are, technologically, very much as robust as the iPhone X. Also, the form-factor is the same as the iPhone 7 and very close to the iPhone 6. The iPhone X is a departure – if you are into the newest stuff, like I am, then by all means, get the iPhone X. If you are just looking to upgrade and older iPhone, the iPhone 8 will amaze you, even over an iPhone 7. And, of course, the iPhone X will still be amazing when the iPhone 11 is released next year. Amazing and cheaper. The iPhone X is not a logical choice, but not everything is logical. Some things not only defy logic, they transcend it.