Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for a Samsung Galaxy A5… Successfully¬†

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An iPhone SE wouldn’t do. There were no DTEK50s left in Canada. And it was January, 2018.

Our Z10s were five years old. Happy Birthday.

I was frustrated. I had been researching how to solve the Phone Problem for about nine months. Over the past month and a half of concerted effort I had twice tried to buy new phones and get them to work. And I had twice failed.

Defeated, I gave up trying to game the system and reluctantly worked within it. I signed up for a two-year plan. I ordered a “0$” phone. I ordered us Samsung Galaxy A5s.

Not sure you’ve heard of those? Me neither. The trademark soup of Android phone names hasn’t improved in the decade since its release.

In this particular case you might not have heard of it because it wasn’t originally supposed to show up in North America. It was going to target EMEA and LatAm only… but then some Canadian carriers made it worth Samsung’s while to bring it to the Great White North.

So how is it. It is a tidy little phone with just enough nods to the now-past (SD Card slot, headphone jack), and just enough gee whiz features (fingerprint sensor for unlock, Always On OLED screen, USB Type-C connector) to bridge our way out of BlackBerry Land.

BBM Groups works, but notification settings are a joke. The Hub is here, but it is a pale shadow of its always-available BB10 edition.

I’ve managed to find a way to install the Android edition of the BlackBerry keyboard. It is familiar enough that I’ve composed all three of these voluminous posts about phones on it. It is strange enough in the details that I still can’t get capitalization correct all of the time.

It makes a difference to me that Samsung is trying to compete with Google in enough ways that many things don’t have to default to data collection. We’re still deep in the belly of the beast, but there are holes that I can see sunlight through so long as I can find the right settings to turn off.

It has enough nice touches that make me think that maybe the Samsung devs care about their phones as much as I care about the ones which bear my code. Like how, when it’s dark, the screen fades into brightness slower than when it’s light out. There’s also all these little false-starts on the phone as well that suggests investment in the R part of R&D, like swiping the phone with the edge of your hand to screenshot. I’d never do that, and have turned it off, but you have to try things to find things that work.

Also, I’ve found a replacement for BlackBerry Blend. It has its quirks, but so did Blend, and I’m looking forward to bending it to my will.

In short, it’s a mixed bag of features poured into a big slab of glass. It’ll do. Since it has to.

So that’s that. We have now left the land of Products of Five Years Past. It is a strange world, but it’s one with Firefox in it, so it can’t be all bad, right?

I hope you’ve found these rambling diatribes of Old Man Yelling at Phone to be entertaining, educating, or at least diverting.

Here’s to having to not have to do this for another five years! (he says, ignoring a creeping sense of dread)

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Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for a BlackBerry DTEK50

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Previously in my attempts to upgrade my and my wife’s nearly five-year-old smartphones, I tried the iPhone SE. It didn’t go well. But at least there was no hurry to move off of our venerable Z10s.

And then the December update of BBM landed.

The consumer portions of BlackBerry Messenger for Android and iPhone were licensed by BlackBerry Ltd to the Indonesian communications technology company Emtek in 2017. Indonesia has a huge BBM userbase, and a huge Android userbase, so this made a lot of sense for both companies.

This left the company-formerly-known-as-Research-in-Motion with BBM Enterprise and keeping the lights on for the consumer BBM infrastructure supporting BBOS and BB10.

What this means is fragmentation. In much the same way that languages will evolve dialects when isolated, so too will previously-compatible software become incompatible.

In this particular case, the December Android and iOS BBM updated so that pictures added to BBM Groups were no longer compatible with the BB10 version of the app. This shows as a “Feature not supported” message and a link to a page that says “Upgrade to the latest BBM” if you are on Android or iOS… and “Upgrade your phone to an Android or iOS device” if you are on BB10.

I found this out when one of my friends updated his phone to a BlackBerry KeyONE and could no longer send pictures of how tall his son had gotten. (6’5″ last I heard).

That’s right. A BlackBerry couldn’t communicate with another BlackBerry. With BBM.

The irony.

This was especially painful to us as we used BBM groups as a private, self-expiring social network. At this it was quite good: we could share photos and text with small groups made up of only those who might care, and the content would scroll off the top and eventually disappear without intervention. High signal, low noise.

Our friends stopped upgrading once they heard of our troubles, but things weren’t going to get any better if we waited. So on Boxing Day I ordered two BlackBerry DTEK50s from Amazon.

BlackBerry had stopped selling these in Canada, having licensed the device hardware business to Chinese manufacturer TCL under the name BlackBerry Mobile who is interested in selling BlackBerry KeyONE handsets and preorders for the BlackBerry Motion. As such, the only DTEK50s I could find were the EMEA editions, but they supported 2600MHz LTE on Band 4, which the towers throughout the province supported quite well.

I opened the phone and plopped in a SIM and suddenly realized just how BlackBerry an Android phone could feel. I don’t think I properly accounted for how much I would miss the BlackBerry keyboard, the blinking LED for notifications… and the Hub. Having all of my messages and stuff show in a single place really is the way I’ve become used to handling the volume of emails I receive.control

(( Of course this is anathema to the app model. Heaven forfend I control messages and data from aught but the app that owns the data. APIs, what’re those? ))

So I was mostly a happy camper. The notification settings weren’t as precise as BB10’s, I could tell within a day that I was going to miss Blend, and I had almost but not quite finished mourning the loss of “headers only” email download…

But there was a problem. The phone wouldn’t connect at anything higher than HSPA+. No LTE. Weird. I checked this before I bought it. Band 4 overlaps. Right?

After spending hours holding for carrier support and hours scouring the wide Web for help, I discovered no solution. There was nothing I could try. There were no leads to run down. The phone just stubbornly refused to connect to LTE, and likely never would.

This was a deal breaker. I wasn’t going to spend hundreds of dollars on phones that didn’t work, no matter how much I pretended that I wouldn’t mind since I’m on WiFi most of the time anyway.

So back they went to Amazon.

And back I went to a BBM that wouldn’t receive group pictures from a steadily increasing number of friends and family.

Something had to be done. And soon.

:chutten

Firefox Telemetry Use Counters: Over-estimating usage, now fixed

Firefox Telemetry records the usage of certain web features via a mechanism called Use Counters. Essentially, for every document that Firefox loads, we record a “false” if the document didn’t use a counted feature, and a “true” if the document did use that counted feature.

(( We technically count it when the documents are destroyed, not loaded, since a document could use a feature at any time during its lifetime. We also count top-level documents (pages) separately from the count of all documents (including iframes), so we can see if it is the pages that users load that are using a feature or if it’s the subdocuments that the page author loads on the user’s behalf that are contributing the counts. ))

To save space, we decided to count the number of documents once, and the number of “true” values in each use counter. This saved users from having to tell us they didn’t use any of Feature 1, Feature 2, Feature 5, Feature 7, … the “no-use” use counters. They could just tell us which features they did see used, and we could work out the rest.

Only, we got it wrong.

The server-side adjustment of the counts took every use counter we were told about, and filled in the “false” values. A simple fix.

But it didn’t add in the “no-use” use counters. Users who didn’t see a feature used at all weren’t having their “false” values counted.

This led us to under-count the number of “false” values (since we only counted “falses” from users who had at least one “true”), which led us to overestimate the usage of features.

Of all the errors to have, this one was probably the more benign. In failing in the “overestimate” direction we didn’t incorrectly remove features that were being used more than measured… but we may have kept some features that we could have removed, costing mozilla time and energy for their maintenance.

Once we detected the fault, we started addressing it. First, we started educating people whenever the topic came up in email and bugzilla. Second, :gfritzsche added a fancy Use Counter Dashboard that did a client-side adjustment using the correct “true” and “false” values for a given population.

Third, and finally, we fixed the server-side aggregator service to serve the correct values for all data, current and historical.

And that brings us to today: Use Counters are fixed! Please use them, they’re kind of cool.

:chutten

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Before
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After (4B more samples)

So I’ve Finished Mass Effect: Andromeda

As much as I enjoyed Maps-Fulla-Icons-Style Open World when BioWare did it for Dragon Age: Inquisition… I might be done with it. Either that or Mass Effect: Andromeda wasn’t the best venue for it, because at the end of the game I’m left feeling a sense of relief.

There was so much game in that game. So many NPCs with so many quests, so many numbers to watch increment and decrement. So many collectibles and beautiful vistas.

Too much.

You land on a planet and the map’s already full of icons. Tasks you haven’t even been told about light up as little white hexagons with inconveniently-small text with poor readability (or I’m old). No signs of where habitation is, or structures, or points of interest, or regional names. Just icons, as far as the eyes can see. I’m happy to have a direction to stretch in to find what I’m after. But giving me all of the quest locations before I get to them… I’m thinking that was a patch job on a design fault where people couldn’t find content unless there was a marker on it.

Even though there’s too much of everything, there’s too little care spent on entire swathes. For instance, if you feel you have to tell players how to skip planet-to-planet animations, maybe that’s a sign of a problem you shouldn’t have shipped?

I didn’t purchase the game until after the 1.10 update hit, which means I was able to skip the worst of the bugs, but my companions would still clip through terrain (intentionally at gravity wells, unintentionally on planet surfaces) and I still haven’t received my trophy for 100% viability on all known worlds (possibly because I hit that milestone before the final fight). And emotions on faces just… aren’t there, most of the time?

A lot of this screams “new engine disease” to me. This was BioWare’s first tangle with Frostbite 3. When you build everything from scratch, you miss the bugs you’d fixed (with hackity hacks and inelegant architectural bypasses, true) years ago. So there are bugs. Audio that doesn’t fire, or pauses for several seconds before firing. Location-based triggers that yell over a character conversation that was honestly more interesting than “We’ve arrived at that place you know we’ve arrived at because we put a notification in the top-right that says you advanced your quest by one quest unit.”

Not all of it is bugs, though. This was an evolution of the Mass Effect design, not a revolution. Open World-ing it… well, that takes care of where to stage the battles and exploration. And the battles and exploration mechanics were fun. I liked the jump-jets, the way enemies kept me on my toes, and even the car (especially on the asteroid. Whee!).

But they haven’t accounted for what to do when your conversation wheel’s empty. And it’s still a conversation wheel. And the “Chose amongst these two imperfect choices” events are still present, mostly unimproved by the “You have three seconds to chose by hitting R2 or not” quick-time-event mechanic.

On the plus side, it was gorgeous. Every direction I looked was another screenshot. The combat was solid (when enemies didn’t become trapped in the scenery). Anything that was big felt absolutely massive. You drive towards this ship in the desert and keep driving… and driving… how big the planet feels. And when find yourselves up against an Architect and ohgod-ohgod-ohgod-… until you realize it’s just a repetitive bullet sponge.

*sigh* what I wouldn’t give for “difficult” to stop meaning “has an order of magnitude more HP”.

All in all, if what you’re after in a game is more Mass Effect, this will scratch that itch satisfactorily. The set-pieces were well-crafted, the worldbuilding quite alright. I’d be happy to see more done in this world.

But maybe something smaller? Give me the trials and tribulations of a young family just out of cryo trying to make it work. Skip a generation and show me what happens with the new crop of core species having grown up knowing only Andromeda and being quite done with caring about what happened in the Milky Way. You can really lean on how Salarians have so many fewer years than even humans.

There are stories to be told here, and games to play. Tell a different one this time, maybe?

 

Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for an iPhone SE

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Black Friday 2017 was coming around and I was spending it repeating what I’d done many times over the course of the year: looking at smartphones.

My wife and I were then using BlackBerry Z10s: those venerable launch devices of the failed* mobile platform BlackBerry 10. These were holdovers from my time as an employee of Research in Motion (aka RIM) eventually renamed BlackBerry Ltd where I worked on the Browser Team from 2008 until 2015.

The Z10 was released in January 2013, which made our phones nearly five years old. This is an eternity for the rapidly-evolving handset hardware business. We were fine with our Z10s, but they were starting to age: batteries drained faster, free storage fell lower, and weird things like “turning off the Wi-Fi for no apparent reason” started happening with ever-increasing prominence, if not frequency.

We were past due for a change.

The BlackBerry Z10 is a small device (by today’s standards) so there were few acceptable choices from the current crop of phones with the correct form factor. Also at this level of concern were security, privacy, and how long it would be sent supporting software updates. The iPhone SE was recommended to me by a dev who sits next to me at my coworking space.

It seemed ideal: excellent support, world-class design, the first platform to get apps, and it kept Google’s data collection to apps instead of bleeding it through the entire phone.
So on Black Friday I bought into That Other Fruit Company at their most affordable pricepoint.

And I hated it.

First off, it had a voicemail indicator that never went away.

Secondly, the mail app showed at most six emails on one screen.

Third, I had to use separate apps to track email, calendar, BlackBerry Messenger, phone calls, SMS.

Fourth, its text-selection capabilities and fine cursor control were horrible.

Fifth, I couldn’t set a non-Safari default browser which meant I was copy-pasting URLs from emails to Firefox multiple times a day. (Something went wrong with the share framework so I couldn’t even “share” the URL to Firefox. Focus worked, though.)

Sixth, there as no way to get my messages and calendar to show on my desktop outside of GMail.

Seventh, and fatally, the WiFi would cut out whenever the screen turned off.

To be fair, the WiFi thing was a hardware fault, the voicemail thing is a problem with my carrier account that they still haven’t resolved, and I was likely going to hate it no matters what it did.

Apple was the enemy for so long I don’t think I could’ve given it a fair shake if the hardware were perfect and my carrier had spent any of its millions of dollars on improving its infrastructure so an empty voice mailbox would read as empty to new phones.

I returned the iPhones, my wife’s untouched. I had given it a week, and it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be happy with even the smallest and most affordable iDevice.

This was unfair. The thing took amazing photos exactly when I asked it to. Its browser scrolled almost as well as the BlackBerry 10 Browser. It did what it was asked with quiet efficiency.

But it wasn’t as good as it needed to have been to overcome my apparently-still-strong anti-Apple bias. So back they went.

Luckily, there was nothing immediately forcing us to make a decision, so we could ride our Z10s into the dirt if we wanted. My wife expressed that she was going to be unhappy to switch to any new device in equal measure, so it didn’t really matter which one.

Also, she was happy to stick to her tried-and-trusted Z10. She had it configured just the way she liked it.

So that’s the story of my unsuccessful attempt to leave my BlackBerry Z10 for an iPhone SE. May it help you in your search for acceptable personal computing appliances amongst the garbage the resident duopoly have left us.

:chutten

The Mystery of the Lloydminster McDonald’s

On our way back from a lovely family afternoon out at the local streetcar museum, we hit up a McDonald’s for a quick bit of dinner on our way home. There we found a new promotion:IMG_20171209_185212.jpg

So far so blah.

But then I looked closer:

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I’m upgrading my phone shortly, so hopefully you won’t have to suffer such poor-quality images in the future. But for now, allow me to transcribe:

“Not valid with any other offer. At participating McDonald’s restaurants in Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Alberta, Northwest Territories and Lloydminster, SK.”

First: What is Atlantic Canada? I know it’s a colloquial designation for the four Eastern provinces (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador), but I didn’t expect to see it referenced in legalese at the bottom of promotional copy. Apparently the term is semi-legitimate, as there is an official arm of the federal government called the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency/Agence de promotion √©conomique du Canada atlantique. Neat.

Second: Oh good, Quebec gets the promotion, too. Quebec gets left out of many things advertised to the whole of Canada because of stricter laws governing gambling (including sweepstakes. Tim Hortons has to bend over backwards to make Roll Up the Rim To Win work there) and advertising (especially to children).

Third: What did Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and the other two territories (Yukon and Nunavut) do to be left out? Nunavut seems obvious: there are no McDonald’s restaurants there. But there’s at least two golden arches in Whitehorse, and scads in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and BC. Must be some sort of legal something.

And that brings us to the titular mystery: Why, of all of Saskatchewan, is Lloydminster spared? Is it the one city where there’s competition? Is it to do with that urban legend about an older burger restaurant in Western Canada someplace that was called McDonald’s first? Is it because it’s licensed under a special food services employer contract that….

No.

It’s because Lloydminster Saskatchewan is here:

lloydminster

It straddles the border between the provinces Alberta and Saskatchewan. Alberta has the McDonald’s promotion. Saskatachewan doesn’t. Lloydminster, AB has two McDonald’s restaurants. Lloydminster, SK has one. It would be unfair to deny the Albertan restaurants the promotion, and unfair to exclude the Saskatechewanian restaurant. So what is McDonald’s to do?

They have to add a rider on their promotion to all corners of the Great White North that proclaims that there is one city (barely) in Saskatchewan in which you can partake of a five dollar meal deal.

Yeesh.