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Confessions of a beta daredevil

Confessions of a beta daredevil
By Harry McCracken • Issue #5 • View online
Hello! It’s been a little while since the last installment of this newsletter, so let’s get back to business.

The joy of living dangerously
So help me, I try to be a responsible citizen. But there’s one area of my life where I like to play fast and loose, and that is installing beta software.
You know those warnings about not installing something like Apple’s new developer betas of iOS and MacOS on a device you use for real work? I cheerfully ignore ‘em and have never regretted doing so, even when my recklessness has, indeed, introduced problems that have crimped my ability to be productive.
Part of this attitude is being excited about getting my hands on new stuff as soon as possible: Sitting in the audience at Monday’s WWDC keynote, I got so smitten with MacOS Mojave’s ability to trim videos right from its Quick Look preview feature that I might have downloaded and installed the beta right from my seat if it had been practical. A tool like that will have such a positive impact on my computing life that I’m willing to risk the possibility of something going wrong in order to get it.
Apple software honcho Craig Federighi, unveiling betas at WWDC
Apple software honcho Craig Federighi, unveiling betas at WWDC
The inherent element of danger in installing an early beta, I must confess, also has an appeal of its own. It’s the software equivalent of participating in extreme sports, and leaves me able to congratulate myself for my own derring-do. You don’t get all that many opportunities in life to feel brave merely by sitting at your desk and clicking on a few buttons, so I take them where I can.
When beta code does act up on me, I try to think of any suffering I must endure as part of my job as a technology journalist. I’ve never wanted to live in an antiseptic bubble where gadgets are trouble-free; instead, the more battle scars I collect, the smarter I feel. Struggling with recalcitrant software is part of the journey, and the journey is its own reward.
I’ll admit that I may have been lucky. Though I’ve certainly experienced lots of beta-induced crashes over the 25 years or so I’ve been behaving this way, I don’t recall any aggressively buggy beta ever bricking my computer, phone, or tablet. I also haven’t lost any essential data. (Did I mention that I also ignore the stock instructions to back up a device before installing a beta?) In recent years, I’ve gotten good enough at storing my essential files in redundant clouds that even the worst possible hardware failure would be irritating more than devastating; if anything, that’s made me even more irresponsible.
I don’t, by the way, think that my own attitude about these matters should be yours as well. Instead, my advice—as it often is with technology-related decisions—is to listen to your instinct. If you prefer to avoid trouble rather than gleefully risk it, that’s fine. Smart, even.
But you know what? If you feel that way, you ought to avoid not only betas but also the first supposedly-final versions of new software. Dot-zero releases, too, are usually buggy; frequently interact badly with other products you’re running; and have been known to brick the hardware they get installed on. Unlike beta software, they don’t come with warnings about installing them on a device you use for real work–but maybe they should.
Here, for the record, is the liveblog we published during the WWDC keynote, with some of the impressions I had about Apple’s news as I heard it. Our liveblogging got off to a rocky start, because cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity in the hall was almost non-existent. But just as I was thinking the wireless gods hated us, bandwidth returned to normal—maybe because the thousands of developers in the hall put down their gadgets and paid full attention to the stage.
Watch Apple’s WWDC keynote livestream with us
A few months ago, my TiVo Roamio Plus began crashing. I swapped in a new hard drive, which solved the problem–briefly. Then I had the power supply replaced, which also turned out to be a temporary fix. And then I plugged the DVR into an uninterruptible power supply, which, once again, seemed to help until it didn’t.
Last week, I gave up trying to resuscitate my Roamio. I flirted with buying a new TiVo, but the price–$300 for a 1TB TiVo Bolt, plus $550 if I wanted to pay upfront for lifetime service–made for an intimidating decision. After mulling over my options, I chose not only to ditch TiVo—as much as I’ve enjoyed it over the years—but also to cut the cable TV cord altogether.
Until now, our household has paid Comcast about $180 a month for 75-Mbps Xfinity internet service and far more TV channels than we need or want, especially in the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. I canceled the TV part–which saved around $100 a month–and used part of that savings to pay for 150-Mbps internet. New monthly bill: about $80, for a savings of $1200 a year. (I don’t have any complaints about the quality of the connectivity we get from Comcast, especially after I bought my own modem and installed an Eero mesh network.)
Each month, $40 of the money we’re no longer paying to Comcast will go to YouTube TV. I’ve been watching it for the past week on our 42" Vizio, where it looks and works great. (Why YouTube TV rather than DirecTV Now, Hulu With Live TV, SlingTV, or PlayStation Vue? Mostly because it offers Decades, an ancient-rerun channel I like.) I also sprung for a Tablo, a DVR for over-the-air TV. I’m not sure how much I’ll end up using it, but it will let me record PBS and a few additional classic-TV stations.
Even after these expenses, we’ll save hundreds of dollars over the course of the year. And though there are certain things I’ll miss about TiVo, I think the overall end result will feel like an upgrade rather than a sacrifice. Stay tuned for further thoughts.
Oh yeah, one other thing: I was prepared for the experience of canceling Comcast TV–which (shocker!) you can’t do online–to be excruciating. Instead, the guy I talked to, on the ominous-sounding “customer loyalty team,” cheerfully and efficiently complied with my request. Maybe Comcast has learned something in the four years since my friend Ryan Block’s transfixing recording of his call with a maniacally unhelpful rep went viral.
Comcast's customer service nightmare is painful to hear - The Verge
Office wars
One of the reasons I enjoy reporting about technology from the Bay Area is that it’s usually possible to visit the people I interview at their offices. You always learn more about individuals and companies by seeing them on their own turf.
Last year, I wrote about WhatsApp founder Jan Koum last year and talked with him in the company’s new offices inside Building 10 at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park. It was the first time that WhatsApp had been based at Facebook rather than off-campus, and I was immediately struck by the fact that its space sat behind a closed door with a stern-sounding sign: “Please keep noise to a minimum.” Once past the door, I found that the quarters had a library-like atmosphere which was very different from the exuberant atmosphere which otherwise predominates at Facebook.
This was all intriguing enough that I touched on it near the top of my article, which was mostly about how WhatsApp had managed to keep on feeling like itself–and keep on growing–under Facebook ownership. But soon after I wrote my piece, Koum’s cofounder, Brian Acton, left the company. Then Koum departed. And thus the dream of WhatsApp being its own idiosyncratic self within Facebook seemingly ended.
This week, a fine Wall Street Journal story by Kirsten Grind and Deepa Seetharaman delved into the reasons behind the exodus of WhatsApp’s founders. As you’d expect, it involved issues such as their distaste for advertising and Facebook’s dependence on it. But the office which I found startlingly un-Facebook-like was also a factor:
Some Facebook staffers considered the WhatsApp unit a mystery and sometimes poked fun at it. After WhatsApp employees hung up posters over the walls instructing hallway passersby to “please keep noise to a minimum,” some Facebook employees mocked them with chants of “Welcome to WhatsApp—Shut up!” according to people familiar with the matter.Some employees even took issue with WhatsApp’s desks, which were a holdover from the Mountain View location and larger than the standard desks in the Facebook offices. WhatsApp also negotiated for nicer bathrooms, with doors that reach the floor. WhatsApp conference rooms were off-limits to other Facebook employees.“These little ticky-tacky things add up in a company that prides itself on egalitarianism,” said one Facebook employee.
When I visited WhatsApp, I took the fact that its office felt like a fortress as evidence that it had managed to preserve its independence. Instead, it was an unsustainable denial of reality.
During my interview last year, I asked Koum about the emphasis on silence, and he described the WhatsApp team as “a little bit older and a little bit crankier than probably a typical college graduate.” He and Acton are both in their forties, respectively eight and 12 years older than Mark Zuckerberg. It seems possible to me that this generation gap—as well as varying stances on privacy, advertising, and bathroom doors—helps explain why a Facebook-owned WhatsApp could not continue being WhatsApp forever.
WhatsApp’s founders reportedly hated working at Facebook’s campus
Here’s one more thing for you this time around:  My post-WWDC thoughts on Siri’s future, Thanks for reading, and feel free to drop me a line at
Siri’s next frontier is human intelligence, not AI
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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