Using Element as an IRC client

Like many who work in open source communities, IRC is a key part of my daily life. Its simplicity has made it a mainstay. But the lack of richness also makes it unattractive to many newcomers. As a result, newer chat protocols are gaining traction. Matrix is one of those. I first created a Matrix account to participate in the Fedora Social Hour. But since Matrix.org is bridged to Freenode, I thought I’d give Element (a popular Matrix client) a try as an IRC client, too.

I’ve been using Element almost exclusively for the last few months. Here’s what I think of it.

Pros

The biggest pro for me is also the most surprising. I like getting IRC notifications on my phone. Despite being bad at it (as you may have read last week), I’m a big fan of putting work aside when I’m done with work. But I’m also an anxious person who constantly worries about what’s going on when I’m not around. It’s not that I think the place will fall apart because I’m not there. I just worry that it happens to be falling apart when I’m not there.

Getting mobile notifications means I can look, see that everything is fine (or at least not on fire enough that I need to jump in and help), and then go back to what I’m doing. But it also means I can engage with conversations if I choose to without having to sit at my computer all day. As someone who has previously had to learn and re-learn not to have work email alert on the phone, I’m surprised at my reaction to having chat notifications on my phone.

Speaking of notifications, I like the ability to set per-room notification settings. I can set different levels of notification for each channel and those settings reflect across all devices. This isn’t unique to Element, but it’s a nice feature nonetheless. In fact, I wish it were even richer. Ideally, I’d like to have my mobile notifications be more restrictive than my desktop notifications. Some channels I want to see notifications for when I’m at my desk, but don’t care enough to see them when I’m away.

I also really like the fact that I can have one fewer app open. Generally, I have Element, Signal, Slack, and Telegram, plus Google Chat all active. Not running a standalone IRC client saves a little bit of system resources and also lets me find the thing that dinged at me a little quicker.

Cons

By far the biggest drawback, and the reason I still use Konversation sometimes, is the mishandling of multi-line copy/paste. Element sends it as a single multi-line message, which appears on the IRC side as “bcotton has sent a long message: <url>”. When running an IRC meeting, I often have reason to paste several lines at once. I’d like them to be sent as individual lines so that IRC clients (and particularly our MeetBot implementation), see them.

The Matrix<->IRC bridge is also laggy sometimes. Every so often, something gets stuck and messages don’t go through for up to a few minutes. This is not how instant messaging is supposed to work and is particularly troublesome in meetings.

Overall

Generally, using Element for IRC has been a net positive. I’m looking forward to more of the chats I use becoming Matrix-native so I don’t have to worry about the IRC side as much. I’d also like the few chats I have on Facebook Messenger and Slack to move to Matrix. But that’s not a windmill I’m willing to tilt at for now. In the meantime, I’ll keep using Element for most of my IRC need,s, but I’m not quite ready to uninstall Konversation.

Why newsletters are email not RSS

Some friends were recently discussing newsletters and one raised the question of why newsletters are done (largely) as email instead of blog posts shared via RSS. I’m going to answer that question in this post. Some of the answers are my own reasoning for sending Newsletter Fiasco as an email. Other answers are what I know or reasonably assume are the motivations for other newsletter senders. And, yes, many newsletters are also available via RSS, even if that’s not the intended distribution mechanism.

Email is universal

Approximately everyone who might want to read your newsletter has an email address. For all its shortcomings, email is the best example of decentralized, standards-driven digital communication. RSS, especially post-Google-Reader tends to skew nerdy. Many of my tech enthusiast friends use RSS readers of some kind. Most of my other friends don’t. Social media platforms have supplanted RSS for a lot of people. If you’re distributing via RSS, you’ve already narrowed your potential audience quite a bit.

Email can wait

I won’t pretend that my usage of RSS is generalizable to all RSS users, but here’s how I use RSS. Mostly, I use the Feedly widget in my browser to tell me when I have unread items. A few times a day, I scan through the unread items and open the ones that I want to read. Then I mark the rest as read. I may not read the open tabs right away, but I generally do it in short order. RSS, then, is an “I’ll read it now or I’ll read it never” proposition. And the longer I go between checking my feeds, the lower the percentage of articles I’ll read.

On the other hand, I might leave a newsletter unread in my email inbox for a few days. This is particularly true for The Sunday Long Read, which is full of great articles that probably require more than a few minutes to read. Sometimes I’ll let a couple of them pile up before I have a chance to sit down and look at them. That doesn’t work well with how I consume RSS.

Email can be forwarded

Forwarding is a key part of the email experience. This is bad when it’s an unhinged conspiracy from a relative (although I only get those via Facebook Messenger these days), but good when you want to share a newsletter you liked. And because it’s universal you can share it with anyone easily (as opposed to sharing on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and … ).

Email feels more personal and direct

Readers understand that the newsletter isn’t written directly to them in particular. But because it comes to their inbox, it can feel more personal. Plus, many newsletter platforms allow for personalization. You can greet all your readers by their name. Or give them stats about how close they are to earning the next swag item by sharing their unique referral code with friends.

Email can be tracked

As a newsletter reader, you probably don’t love this one. But as a newsletter writer, it can be incredibly valuable. A lot of people who write newsletters are doing it in service of a #brand, either their personal brand or a professional brand. This means it’s important to know not only how many people read the content, but who. And while this may feel a little icky, I argue that it’s way less icky than web cookie tracking. It’s a compromise level of icky.

For Newsletter Fiasco, I don’t look at the stats. I have no idea what my open and click rates are. I have never looked to see who is clicking what links. Let’s be honest, I started my newsletter because I wanted to be cool like the other people who had newsletters. That anyone reads it is always a welcome surprise.

But when I worked in marketing, it was important to know who was clicking what links. If they were current customers, it was just nice to see they liked us enough to pay us and also read our newsletter. But for potential customers, seeing what items from our news roundup interested them helped our sales team make the pitch that mattered to them specifically. If they only ever clicked articles about GCP, why waste time telling them about our AWS-specific features? If nobody ever clicked the links about job schedulers, we’d stop putting them in the newsletter.

Even unsubscribes can give you useful information. Many unsubscribe pages offer an optional one-question survey: why are you unsubscribing? If someone stops visiting your blog, all you know is that they’re not visiting anymore. Well, you know that the views are down, assuming the person who left isn’t offset by a new reader. That churn number can be informative, too.

This is what a “newsletter” is

There’s probably some amount of “this is how it’s always been” here, too. Newsletters were a thing you printed and sent to people in the analog era, so that’s what they are in the digital era, too. A newsletter distributed via blog is called a blog. In that sense, the name “newsletter” is more about the distribution mechanism than the content. A good example of this is Jim Grey’s weekly “Recommended Reading” blog post. The content could easily be a newsletter, except it’s not because it’s a blog post.

Are these good reasons?

I leave that up to you, Dear Reader. I won’t claim that any of these reasons are particularly good or bad. They’re just the reasons the person producing the newsletter would use email instead of a blog.

Did software stagnate in 1996?

Betteridge’s Law says “no”. But in a blog post last week, Jonathan Edwards says “yes”. Specifically, he says:

Software is eating the world. But progress in software technology itself largely stalled around 1996. 

It’s not clear what Edwards thinks happened in 1996. Maybe he blames the introduction of the Palm PIlot? In any case, he argues that the developments since 1996 have all been incremental improvements upon existing technology. Nothing revolutionary has happened in programming languages, databases, etc.

This has real “old man yells at cloud” energy. Literally. He includes “AWS” in his list of technology he dismisses.

Edwards sets up a strawman to knock down. Maybe “[t]his is as good as it gets: a 50 year old OS, 30 year old text editors, and 25 year old languages,” he proposes. “Bullshit,” he says.

I’d employ my expletive differently: who gives a shit?

Programming does not exist for the benefit of programmers. Software is written to do something for people. The universe of what is possible with computing is inarguably broader than in 1996. Much of that is owed to improvements in hardware, to be sure. And you can certainly argue of what’s possible with computing is bad. But that’s not what’s at issue here.

I don’t see carpenters bemoaning the lack of innovation in hammers. Software development isn’t special. It’s a trade like any other. And if the tools are working, let them work.

I won’t even bother with his “open source is stifling innovation” nonsense. Rebutting that is left as an exercise to the reader.

Working from home: my advice

There are as many articles about working from home as there are people who work from home. But I’ve been asked by a few people about my experiences, so looking back on the last nearly seven years, here’s what stands out.

Let’s keep a few things in mind first. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to work from home. In the midst of a pandemic, I feel for them. Also, working from home for a few weeks as an emergency is different from doing it all the time. Routine work from home you plan ahead for. It probably doesn’t involve having your partner and children around all the time while you also worry about a global pandemic and economic collapse. Just do the best you can and understand that your best now probably looks a lot different than your best a few months ago.

Your environment

Ideally, you’ll want a separate room that’s walled off from the rest of the house. This gives you the ability to focus and sets boundaries for you and others. If that’s not possible, get yourself the most secluded space you can. Make sure you have enough space for your laptop and any additional equipment you might need. Make sure there are power outlets available. I also ensure there’s space for mug of coffee or a cup of water, depending on the time of day.

When it comes to noise, you might not get much choice. If you like having chaos in the background, that’s great. With a partner, pets, or kids at home, you’ll probably get that. Noise canceling headphones are a good thing to have, but keep in mind that “noise canceling” means “the hum of your HVAC” not “the shriek of your toddler”. I personally tend to listen to podcasts. I’m generally not paying active attention, but the background talking helps. If I’m reading intently or writing, then I’ll shut it off.

Also consider what’s behind you. You’ll probably be on video calls a lot. Does the background send the message you want? Most people will understand a messy room, but if it bothers you, now’s the time to address it. Be particularly careful if someone can walk into frame unexpectedly. Years ago, I’m pretty sure I saw someone walk out of the shower in the background of a call with a coworker. That was awkward. You may consider having some kind of visual indicator: a flag or a light or something. Anything that will make it clear to those around you that you’re “on air” can help them avoid being in the meeting unexpectedly. But also consider that everyone else is going through this and a cute animal or kid can help everyone relax for a minute.

If you can help it, don’t work from a bed or couch. They’re too comfortable and I’ve found it’s really hard to maintain focus. The only time I’ve worked from bed is when I’ve felt particularly unwell but couldn’t bring myself to not work. (That is a personal failing, not an admirable trait.)

Try to find somewhere with sunlight, too. Especially in winter, having some sunshine really helps my mood. Consider where it will come in, though. You probably don’t want it directly in your face as you look at the screen, nor directly over your shoulder.

Your communication

Get ready to embrace your employer’s video platform of choice. I work in an open source community where a lot of daily communication happens through text-based chat. But video calls add an important human dimension. The in-person conversations you used to have? They happen on a webcam now!

If you have multiple monitors, put the thing you’re looking at on the one with the webcam. That might be the chat application, but it also could be a shared document that you’re looking at. But I can say from experience that it’s really disorienting to be looking at someone in profile the whole time.

On a similar note, try to find a good angle for your webcam. It’s best if it can catch you straight on. Up-nose shots are no fun and looking-down-on-your-forehead shots seem weird.

If your bandwidth isn’t up a video call, disable the video. It’s better to have the audio than nothing. If you’re not normally working from home, you might not have paid for the bandwidth you need, especially if others in the house are streaming movies or something. Also keep in mind that some providers throttle the upload bandwidth, which means that you might be receiving the call clearly, but your video or audio might be on the strugglebus. A business-class connection will generally not have that limitation, so it may be worth checking with your provider on that.

One thing you won’t get working remotely is the random water cooler chatter. That can be really helpful for team bonding. In previous jobs, I’ve done things like pair people up with randomly-selected coworkers and say “schedule a 15 minute call in the next two weeks to talk about anything you want.” I have a script that will draw names out of the hat for you. If you have a chat tool like Slack, IRC, etc, have a channel devoted to chit-chat. People can pop in and shoot the breeze without worrying about bothering someone who is in the zone.

Your self

Dress for success. Or at least for work. In cold weather, I put on jeans. In the summer, I wear shorts. What I don’t wear is pajama pants. I’ve found that I just can’t motivate myself to get work done on days I stay in my pajama pants. Not everyone has that problem, so if you find it works for you, great!

You might also want to shower. Or not. I won’t say how often I shower, but I can assure you it’s not daily. A lot depends on how I feel. If I feel like I need a shower, I take one. Sometimes that’s in the morning, but it’s usually at night or occasionally midday. You may find that you need to do your whole morning routine in order to feel motivated for work. That’s fine, but don’t expect that everyone else will.

Try to get some exercise if you can. I’m really bad at this myself, especially when I’m busy or the weather is bad. But when the weather is nice, a 20 minute walk around the neighborhood is a good chance to get away and think for a few minutes. A standing desk or treadmill desk can help too, or even some hand weights that you use during a call.

You know what’s great? Naps! It’s hard to do this at an office, but one of the things I really like about working from home is that I can go lie down for 20 minutes. “But, Ben!” you say “isn’t that like stealing from the company?!” I look at it this way: I could spend 20 minutes taking a nap, or two hours sitting at my desk but just sort of mindlessly staring at my screen. Which one seems better?

At some point, you’ll want to eat. I see a lot of advice that says “don’t eat at your desk”, but I do that almost every day. I did that when I worked in an office, too. For me, it was a way to shorten the work day a bit. For you, do what works best for you. Experiment a little bit. For me, I also know that I should not keep food within arms reach because I will eat it. All of it. Having a little bit of physical separation from food goes a long way.

Perhaps the most important thing is to give yourself some slack. Being a human is hard, and being a human in the time of pandemic is harder. You have a lot on your mind, and it’s okay if you’re not always at your best. Especially if you’re working from home in a suboptimal situation.

Your boundaries

You should have them. Working from home can really blur the line between work and home. It’s okay to step away for a few minutes to load laundry or run the vacuum. It’s not okay to keep working until 11pm because suddenly your living room is now your office. This is where having a separate office space helps. If you can make it happen.

Communication boundaries with coworkers are important, too. Don’t send an IM if it could be an email or a message in a broader channel. In a previous job we set up an escalation process for help requests in Slack:

  1. Ask in a product- or customer-specific channel with no tagging names, @here, or @channel
  2. If sufficient (use your judgment, based on the urgency) time goes by and you haven’t gotten an answer, repeat the message with @here to alert folks who are available
  3. If that still doesn’t get a response, send an IM to the person you think could help

Your routine

Like I said above, some people find they need to go through the whole routine in order to get motivated for work. That might mean doing makeup and hair and getting dressed in your “grown up” clothes. I’ve even heard of some people who drive their car around the block once just to have that mental routine of a morning commute.

I, on the other hand, do none of that. The closest thing to routine I have is making coffee before I sit down at my desk. For me, I love that I can be out of bed and at work five minutes later. I am not at all a morning person. What I do miss is having a commute home. Especially if you have kids, it can be hard to go straight from work stress to kid stress with no break in between. I don’t really miss the act of commuting, just the time to switch gears. For me, I found that was a good time to do 10 minutes of meditation. It helped me calm down after work and it gave me just enough of a break to be less frazzled with the kids.

Your distractions

I love working from home, but it’s not all great. Being able to step away for 5 minutes to get house work done is a great mental relief. But it’s also possible to get carried away, especially if you’re trying to avoid a hard problem at work. Unloading the dishwasher is fine. But don’t let it snowball into then cleaning out the fridge and scrubbing the stove top and and and.

If you have roommates, spouses, children, etc, they need to know when you’re working and that you should be left alone except in emergency. Find a way to signal that, like wearing your headphones when you walk through the house.

You can do this

Whether you’re making work-from-home a permanent thing, or you’re just work-from-home-during-a-pandemic-oh-god-what-is-happening-in-this-world, I hope some of the advice here helps. If you only take away 12 words, let them be: set boundaries, do what works for you, and go easy on yourself.

The blurring lines of ownership

There was a time when you owned your car. Once you drove it off the lot, you could do whatever you wanted with it (subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction and the laws of physics). The manufacturer had no say in the matter — indeed they had know way of even knowing what you did. But this is beginning to change.

As hurricane Dorian approached the US coast, Tesla unlocked extra range on cars in the evacuation area. That’s right: Tesla 1. has the ability to change your car’s settings remotely and 2. is selling cars that intentionally reduce the range below maximum.

Let’s take a look at the second part first. Tesla, in order to offer a lower entry price, withholds some battery range by software configuration. You can pay them to get the full range. I understand they do this because it’s cheaper for them to have a single battery. But it feels scummy to me. Tesla’s costs are the same whether you buy the short-range version or the long-range version. So unless you pay them extra, you’re forced to drive around with extra weight. It’s like if Honda required me to keep two gallons of fuel in my gas tank that I could never use.

Tesla fans will defend this, and I understand their arguments. But it strikes me as a very uncomfortable middle ground between me owning the car and Tesla owning the car.

Tesla also, as I mentioned, has the ability to change this setting remotely. What else can they change? Presumably just about anything. I got to ride around in my friend’s Tesla earlier this year and you can do a lot from the app. Lock/unlock the doors, turn on the air conditioning, turn on the seat warmers. Unless the app is down., of course. (In Tesla’s defense, owners really should have a physical key of some kind with them because computers are the worst.)

None of this is me picking on Tesla, they just happen to be a convenient example and perhaps the furthest along the evolutionary line. At some point in the future, I suspect that individual ownership of automobiles will decrease dramatically. But we are not there yet. But we’re also no longer in a model where individuals fully own their cars. As cars get “smarter” the amount that the nominal owner actually owns them will decrease. Eventually we’ll cross a tipping point.

In the meantime, you have to decide how much you trust you car’s manufacturer. How smart do you want your car to be? Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the tech industry at large have shown little respect for the privacy rights of users. Does Tesla? If it does now, will it in the future? If Ford buys Tesla tomorrow, will they shut the servers down and suddenly your car is much less than it was.

This isn’t limited to cars, either. If your smart thermostat’s manufacturer shuts off the servers tomorrow, will your heat still turn on? If your abusive ex works at the manufacturer, can they access your data? Can they change the settings on your thermostat? Abusers are already putting connected devices to nefarious use.

None of this technology is bad per se, but we are woefully ill-equipped to handle it at this point. Existing laws and regulations were written largely for a different time. As a society, we have not yet come to define what reasonable boundaries are. The nature of ownership is changing. We need to change our concepts of ownership to keep up.

Is venture capital hurting the tech industry?

Maybe.

So many of the ethical lapses in the tech industry (think Facebook or Uber) seem to be driven, in part, by the need to grow as rapidly as possible. From where does that need come? At least part of it comes from the venture capitalists (VCs) who provide the early funding for those companies.

VC firms work by throwing a little money at a lot of companies, and throwing more money at the companies that are doing well, in the hopes that they go public or get acquired. Then the VC firms get big ol’ paydays. The nature of business is that most companies fail, so in order to keep going, the VC firms need the successes to be really big successes. Grow as fast as you can, profit and ethics be damned, until someone buys you for oodles of money.

To make themselves attractive to venture capital firms, fledgling companies will sometimes go for the flashy new technology. They’ll think about how they can disrupt industries with blockchain-based crypto-cloud-crowd-AI-machine-learning whatever-whatever-whatever. Everything has to scale exponentially. Throw in all sorts of sensors and have the device do local inference. Even if all they need is to put a stick-shaker on a steering wheel.

But this growth comes at a cost. Scaling a company culture is hard. Scaling it as fast as you can spin up a new AWS region is impossible. Free-flowing capital allows companies to build out quickly, but quickly isn’t always the same as well. Having restricted capital available is a constraint that can help a company make focused and deliberate decisions.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Not just because of my experience at a local pitch night, but because it’s just past the two year anniversary of Microsoft acquiring Cycle Computing. Jason and Rachel Stowe founded Cycle Computing in 2005 on their credit card. Apart from a debt round in 2016 (if I remember correctly), the company existed for 12 years on revenue.

It wasn’t always easy. There were times when I took a far-too-early flight because it would save the company fifty dollars. We had to be careful with our expenses and we couldn’t hire as fast as we wanted. But when we did spend money, it was because we thought it was the best thing for the company’s success, not just because it was there to spend. But that also meant that when the big payday came, the employees got a nice windfall — there were no VCs to pay off first.

Companies, particularly software and consulting companies that don’t need much equipment, can succeed in low-capital mode unlike anything we’ve known in the past. You don’t need office space because your employees can work remotely. You don’t need data centers because you can run on cloud services. Pay your employees and give them laptops, and then you’re off to the races. Capital infusion can help, but often it can make it worse. If you’re in business to run a successful business (as opposed to making big money), then maybe venture capital is not the answer for you.

As an industry — and a species — we’ve grown to love big, flashy numbers. But it’s important not to mistake valuation for value.

Switching from consumer Gmail to G Suite

Last spring, I was having some trouble with my email. I had my @funnelfiasco.com email forwarding to the Gmail account I’d been using since 2005 or so. But for some reason, every so often email would silently just not make it through. This nearly cost me the opportunity to be the technical reviewer for The Linux Philosophy for SysAdmins (affiliate link). There was no real indication of what was going on, and since my friend graciously hosts my site for free, I didn’t want to push too hard. So I decided I’d just be Google’s customer instead of their product.

Here’s the kicker: Google doesn’t let you just become a paying user. So I created a G Suite account for FunnelFiasco, a “company” of one person. But this also meant that I couldn’t just magically promote my existing account. Instead, I had to migrate all of the data. This turned out to be mostly easy, but a bit of a pain in some regards.

Migrating

Chrome

Moving Chrome data to a G Suite account is very easy: you log out and log in with the new account. The main thing to remember is to not deleting the existing data when you log in with the new account. It’s that simple. If you have any payment methods stored, those are in Google Play, not in Chrome.

Voice

Moving Google Voice is less easy. You can’t import your history into the new account, which killed a lot of the value for me (that was part of the reason I decided to port my Google Voice number to my mobile carrier). You can export it and keep it locally, but that’s not entirely helpful. But once I made peace with that, I was able to transfer it to my G Suite account. However, the Google Voice support site says that’s not an option these days.

Contacts

It’s as simple as exporting from the old account and importing to the new. It took a little while for my imported contacts to show up, which led me to think the import failed. So I tried again. And then I had all of my contacts twice. So I deleted them all and imported again. This time I was patient, and it was fine. But if you switch the main Google account on your Android phone, you may be surprised when an edit to a contact doesn’t appear to be reflected on your phone (it’s still showing the old account’s version, too).

Mail

G Suite provides a data migration service for importing email. This worked very well, but very slowly. One of the benefits of Gmail, especially in the early days, was the bountiful storage space. Combined with usable search, it meant not having to delete email. So I had something like 383,000 emails in my account. This took about 10 weeks for the data migration service to import. There are probably faster ways to do this, but I didn’t really care. If I needed an old message, I could log in to the old account.

The data migration service does not move mail filters. Those can be exported as an XML document and reimported to the new account.

Calendar

I apparently didn’t take notes on this at the time, but I think what I did here was to add my G Suite account as a fully-privileged user for my consumer calendar. I had them both displayed and as I saw things that were owned by the old account, I moved them to the new calendar. Most of my calendar events are on the shared family calendar anyway, so making my new account an owner there was essentially no different.

Docs/Drive

As with the calendar, I had to add my new account as owner to the documents I still cared about. It’s an annoyingly manual process.

Other services

I didn’t have much data — if any — in other services (YouTube, etc), so I didn’t worry about that.

Life with two Google Accounts

In the end, I’m sort of stuck with having two Google Accounts. Most people don’t email me directly at my @gmail account because I’ve been using @funnelfiasco.com for so long. But the account still exists and I go check it every so often to make sure I’m not missing anything. The few people who use Hangouts Chat still mostly IM me at the funnelfiasco account, but occasionally they’ll slip up and use the gmail account.

G Suite is overkill for my needs, but it’s the only way Google will take my money. At some point, I’d like to extricate myself from Google to some degree. I know it’s possible, and I know many of the people who might read this post would strongly advocate it. But it’s also very convenient to use Google, and I’m aware of the trade-offs I’m making. I’m not interested in having that conversation.

The T-Mobile/Sprint merger might be beneficial

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his support of a proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. It’s not often that Chairman Pai and I agree on anything, so I feel I should point out when it happens. T-Mobile and Sprint are the third and distant fourth place players in the U.S. cellular market. Combined they’d be second behind Verizon.

Normally, fewer players in a market means less competition. I think this may be the rare case where fewer players makes for more competition. Right now, T-Mobile competes on price, customer service (T-Mobile Tuesdays, anyone?), and speed (where you get coverage). Speaking from my experience as a T-Mobile customer, the service is top-notch, where it exists. And that’s where a merger might help. By combining resources, the larger T-Mobile can improve geographic coverage and perhaps give Verizon a run for the money when spectrum goes up for auction.

For all of T-Mobile CEO John Legere’s bravado, T-Mobile is basically yapping at the heels of Verizon and AT&T. Sprint, meanwhile, is destined to die at some point. Allowing it to merge with T-Mobile means that Verizon and AT&T don’t get to gobble up the carcass in bankruptcy auction. The Department of Justice disagrees, so it remains to be seen if the merger can complete. But I think it would give us three big players, instead of two big players and two smaller players. That sounds more competitive to me.

Full disclosure: I am a T-Mobile customer and shareholder.

Google product shutdowns: a forest fire for the Internet

Google has a problem. Well, Google probably has many problems. But in a recent Ars Technica article, Ron Amadeo points out a particular problem: shutting down products frequently is harming the Google brand. Google killing off products is nothing new; some people are still mad about the death of Google Reader nearly six years ago.

Are we reaching an inflection point, though? I don’t know. I lived in fear of Google ending Google Voice, but that managed to survive despite languishing for a long time. But when I saw that T-Mobile offered a service that (somewhat poorly) replaced the Google Voice features I actually used, I switched. With the exception of Reader, none of the product retirements have affected me personally very much. I wanted to like Google+, but it never caught on. I liked iGoogle, but once it went away, I was fine without it.

Even though I haven’t personally been affected too much by Google’s ruthless culling of the portfolio, I’ve found that I’m becoming more likely to consider alternatives to Google services when they exist. Certainly if I were running a business, I would be very wary of relying on any software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering apart from the Gmail/Google Drive core.

I get that Google is trying different things and there’s a lot to be said for cutting off a project (particularly a popular one), when it’s not meeting whatever measure of success you set for it. Doing this in public is even more challenging. I don’t think this will end up causing too much harm to Google, despite mounting dissatisfaction. As long as search (and ads, of course) remain strong, these consumer services exist only as experiments in finding new ways to get ads in front of eyeballs.

What does concern me is Google’s ability to suck the oxygen out of the room. By creating a reliable, easy-to-use product, Google can eliminate the competition. Then when they shut it down, destruction is left in the wake. I’m thinking in particular of the diminished role of RSS after Google Reader’s shutdown and the drop in instant messaging (at least among my friends) after Hangouts removed XMPP support and essentially went on life support.

Neither of these can be entirely attributed to Google. The rise of Facebook as a behemoth helped, too. But the fact that Google weakened the ecosystem made it easier, I’d argue, for Facebook to swoop in and finish the job.

All told, I think Google’s product retirements are a good thing, as dysfunctional as they may be sometimes. They clear the underbrush of product offerings like a forest fire. Some of the strongest survive and the rest is made ready for new life to spring forth.

Protecting the privacy interests of others

Every so often, I think about privacy. Usually because Facebook or another large company has acted stupidly again. And I’ll admit that despite the lousy track record that many companies have, I make the choice to use their services anyway because I determine the value to outweigh the negatives. But not everyone makes that choice.

When we talk about protecting privacy, we generally talk about protecting our own privacy. But our privacy impacts the privacy of others. I got on this line of thought a while back while listening to This Week in Law (RIP) episode 440. They were talking about what happens to your digital property (e.g. email and social media accounts) after you die. While I won’t particularly care about what is said about me after I’m dead — I’ll be dead after all — it’s not just my content there.

Sometimes my friends tell me things about their lives. The most convenient way happens to be email or instant messaging. Now you can argue that these sorts of things should be discussed in a more secure manner, but that ignore the way people live their actual lives. Anyway, sometimes my friends tell me things that they wouldn’t necessarily want others to know. Secrets about relationships, desires, worries, etc.

If my accounts become available to someone else after my death, then so do the messages sent in confidence to me. And just because my friend felt comfortable confiding in me, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel comfortable with my estate knowing their secrets.

It’s a tricky situation. A generation or two ago, these sorts of things would be communicated in person, over the phone, or by written letter. Only the last of these would leave a record of the content, and even then they’re likely destroyed fairly soon. The ability to cheaply store communications en masse is both a blessing and a curse. Neither law nor societal norms have yet come to terms with this new world.