Privacy Screens

Traveling really is awful for all kinds of reasons. But from a work perspective it’s even worse. Not only is it hard to do work on airplane because it’s cramped, you also have to worry about people looking over your shoulder.

Privacy screens are polarized film that go over your screen and act as both a protector against scratches but also make it hard to see what you’re looking at from an angle.

In these pictures you can see the image completely, but from the side it’s very difficult to tell what I’m looking at. If I were to dim the screen it would be almost impossible to tell I’m even looking at a lit phone except for the ambient light around the edges.

Privacy Anti-Spy Screen Protectors are a very cheap piece of mind when you have to write something sensitive before you forget it.

Now be warned, it doesn’t work in the vertical dimension, only the horizontal, so if you turn the phone into landscape mode it will still be visible. But as long as you know that and keep your phone in portrait mode, it becomes a lot harder for people to see what you’re doing unless they’re right behind you.

iPhone 7 Headphones

The new Apple headphone jack, or lack thereof is perhaps the most talked about gaffe of the cellphone area after maybe antenna gate or bend-gate. But for business travelers it is more than an inconvenience.

If for some reason you really did believe that Apple’s new headphone tech was the wave of the future I have several issues that still need to be discussed.

  • Bluetooth still isn’t perfectly safe. It broadcasts your MAC address and can be used by attackers to figure out who you are as you travel. It’s the main reason I disable it when I’m in airports or out on the town. It’s okay in a conference room or at home where everyone there already presumably knows you. But beyond that, it’s really not a great idea to keep turned on, and that is assuming there are no vulnerabilities left in it beyond that, which I would never assume. More attack surface is bad. Weary travelers have enough to worry about.
  • It’s not noise cancelling. For those of us who have to do international travel, the lack of noise canceling capabilities is not just a slight inconvenience, it’s the difference between getting a decent nap and hearing the annoying conversation behind you about conspiracy theories by two misinformed luddites for 8 hours straight.
  • The battery life on the headphones are 5 hours. That’s not even long enough to make it through one international flight and definitely not one with a layover. Please don’t talk to me about charging my equipment on layovers either, most of the time I’m running through airports – the very last thing I have time to do is sit and have a latte while my headohones recharge. And you can’t charge it while you use it, so you’re stuck pulling it out of your ears, charging it up for 15 minutes so you get another three hours. If you manage to make it through the entire flight only charging it once, it’s because you charged it immediately before the flight. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do than manage my headphone battery while I’m traveling through foreign lands.
  • I understand there is a dongle adapter for the phone but that is yet one more thing to manage, and it fully takes up the same port that I need to charge the phone. Of the two my phone’s battery will always trump the headphones, so yet another reason I’ll be without headphones – while I charge my phone. There is apparently some dock that can be purchased that will allow for charging and listening at the same time, but that is yet one more thing to juggle and lose. Further increasing complexity and making it harder on business travelers.
  • If you want to do a presentation with the HDMI cable from your phone, you cannot have sound at the same time without aforementioned dock and HDMI adapter combo. That’s a lot of pieces to go wrong, get broken, get lost, or otherwise not work with any sort of protective case. This could be fixed by a bigger/more complex dongle, or an external Bluetooth to RCA jack device, but that has not been introduced yet.

I don’t care about the cost personally, or the ever present Apple obsession to reduce cluttered on the device, or the issues with Apple’s desire for DRM. But I do care about reduced convenience and worse travel conditions. This was a big miss, and until they fix it, I do not recommend switching away from the 6 series of iPhones. It’s not courageous – it’s poor user design.

Ring Stents

I was recently turned onto the idea of using a ring-stent as a quick solution to the problem of reducing hand-fatigue and making it easier to work while I’m on the road without having a case that has a popup to hold it up.

The ring-stent is a 360 degree mobile ring that has enough tension to stay put in whatever position you leave it in. I’ve found it useful when I’m on the road or when I need to do longer projects and holding the phone just isn’t cutting it anymore.

The sticker is strong enough to hold up the phone as long as you aren’t pulling on it or adding extra weight. It’s also easy enough to pull off and re-position if need be without leaving any residue of any kind. I’m told that you can re-stick it dozens of times.

Ring stents being used
In the picture above you can see there are different versions – like the Rok Mobile branded one on the left or the Amazon off-brand Cell Phone Stent which comes with a holder.

It’s also great for flights where you can prop your phone up on a tray and watch a movie without having to jerry-rig something. Very clever design.

Fuse Chicken BOBINE

I was recently turned onto a different type of cable for a different type of application. Yesterday I talked about the Kenu 2 in 1 and it’s virtues, but one thing it gives up in being lightweight is rigidity. That brings us to the Fuse Chicken BOBINE.

The BOBINE is basically a flexible semi-rigid USB to lightning cable that allows you to work on your phone in a semi-upright position. For the most part I don’t think there’s a lot of value in this, except when you’re traveling.

Just as a test, I laid down on the ground and used the BOBINE to semi-connect it to my backpack. I’ve had to use my backpack as a back/headrest in airports on extremely long layovers when there is no open Admiral’s club in sight. I’m not proud of it, but sometimes a business traveler has to do what they have to do – even in a suit. And sometimes that’s laying on the ground with food poisoning and yes, that’s happened to me.

The nice part about the BOBINE is that you don’t have to use your arms to keep it in place and in view while you’re in strange positions – like on your back feeling like you stomach is on strike from the rest of your body. When you have your hands free you can use a bluetooth keyboard easier and get more work done, or you can simply watch videos and try to distract yourself from that feeling in your stomach.

Anyway, I think there are far less uses for this than other cable management systems because it requires me to remove my case to fit properly, but still an interesting one to have with you on International flights where you might end up having to deal with some extremely odd layovers. A little comfort can go a long ways.

And in case you were wondering, it was the oysters that did me in. Of course it was, I can hear you saying.

Multitasking on a Smartphone

Multi-tasking on a phone is a very different thing than multi-tasking on a desktop environment. There are some things that are similar and work well. Then there are also quite a few things that need a lot of work or just are currently not possible for a variety of reasons.

Let’s start with the good. You can do things like listen to music while you work. You can take a phone call while you work. You can run several apps at the same time, cutting and pasting between them or having them launch one another. You can download things in the background – like email for instance. Your system can be monitoring dozens of chat clients running with virtually no processing power and still push you a message as it arrives, and on and on.

The bad news is that you can’t do things like you might on a traditional computer – even when running on a full sized monitor through an HDMI dongle. For instance you can’t watch a movie and write an email. Quite often I used to watch a presentation in one window that lasted an hour and work in another, looking over only when I needed to see what the presentation was saying – that’s just not possible on the phone. You can’t have two apps open at the same time for transcribing purposes or for productivity reasons.

The issue comes down to a combination of problems. Its a mix of screen real-estate, the lack of a mouse and app handles to switch between apps to give focus to the active window, and the memory requirements.

What that means is that if you need to do that you end up doing context switching far far too often between apps. On the iPhone (as an example) this means taking the hands off the keyboard and double clicking the home button to switch contexts between windows. That’s a very slow and annoying context switching operation. Unlike the alt-tabs keyboard shortcuts of the world which context switch and are very fast, you’re really stuck doing a slow operation.

So there is a long ways to go to consider it an equivalent operating environment. But it is coming along. Not that many years ago, the iPhone couldn’t even run two apps concurrently. So we’ve come far enough that it’s a useful business tool. I still think Continuum is going to ultimately be the path forward for mobile operating systems though as a result – the phone should be context aware of switching into desktop mode. Memory issues may prevent it, but the screen real-estate and access to a mouse and keyboard are foregone conclusions in the business world. So it’s just a matter of giving the phone a little more memory, making context switching seamless and allowing Bluetooth mouse access. We’re so close I can taste it!

Phone Desktop Holder

Working with a phone can be a bit annoying in terms of keeping it at a height and position where you can easily read it while doing real work. Normally this isn’t a big deal if you have a monitor because that serves the same function for most things.

However, if you have to access the touch interface you’ll need to do something to prop up the phone. You’ll end up having to do this far too often, since phones lack a mouse and many of the navigation functions of a traditional operating system are missing.

HOTOR Phone Holder
HOTOR Phone Holder

One such option is to use a stand. I picked the HOTOR solid aluminum desk phone stand, because it’s inexpensive, durable, and allows you to work in landscape or portrait mode fairly easily. Though I will say that moving between the two is annoying to say the least if you keep a cable attached to it, since it will require moving said cable around quite a bit. That said, it’s still a nice option when you need to have your phone handy and in a visible place at all times. I have no doubt I will revisit this topic in the future.

Ultimately I think this is really just a hack though, because the real solution is to just allow mice and fix productivity apps so that they work in landscape mode as well as portrait mode. But for now, this is what we have to deal with.

Mouse vs Productivity

A friend of mine sent me a quick note that I thought was worth sharing. In an effort to improve production vs consumption he has opted to forego a mouse entirely in his PC environment.

so an interesting thing I’m going to try is is turning off my mouse whenever I’m “working”. So doing anything focused like coding or whatever. Get to know my keyboard shortcuts better and hopefully be a nice way to reduce the temptations to get distracted

Obviously there are some times a mouse really aids in production. Drawing, or clicking through research to find the snippet of code (consumption for the purpose of production) or clicking on rich apps that have drop downs are all examples. Ironically, the lack of a mouse is one of my greatest pet peeves with the iOS environment because tab doesn’t work the way you’d expect it to in most apps. But this is an interesting take on improving productivity that I hadn’t heard of before.

Headsets and Flying Light

I have often said if there were a single website on the face of the planet that I wish I had come up with (assuming it was purely for fun) it would be Onebag. The idea being, how can you reduce your total travel needs down to a singular bag, which has all sorts of benefits for travelers. I really really like this idea, as it fits closely with the Smartphone Exec lifestyle.

There are three major things to think about when you’re thinking through what to pack.

  1. Can it serve more than one purpose? Does it have at least two functions? If not, then it should probably not get packed unless it’s very very important (insulin or contact lenses or whatever). Basically the more uses you can get out of something the more likely it will get packed.
  2. Find the lightest version possible, or re-package it into a lighter package where it makes sense to. There’s a lot of heavy items out there that have lighter weight versions. You don’t want to be lugging around an anvil in your bag, even if it will fit.
  3. Find something that doesn’t take up much space. If it’s small, then it’s a better candidate for travelers. If it can shrink when not in use, or after use, even better (for instance an air pillow).

Since I brought up headphones yesterday with regards to Apple possibly doing away with the headphone jack entirely, I thought this would be a good follow-on post.

When I started traveling, I realized that I had to get some better headphones. The ones I had at the time weren’t noise cancelling and the difference between something that does and doesn’t cancel noise on an airplane is significant. Less noise is better quality of sleep, less distractions when you’re writing things, and frankly, a less annoying experience all around.

My first noise cancelling headset was an early Sony model that rivaled the Bose headsets, but were a bit cheaper. I didn’t notice any significant difference between the two and was told the over-ear model would reduce vibrations on the ear and make substantially more quiet than anything that could fit in your ear. The in-ear models were a gimmick more or less. I kept that model for several years and had no major complaints until I switched to using only one bag. Then I started looking at other options. I’d be willing to sacrifice a little noise for a lot less space in my bag.

So I bought the Bose wireless headset that was most recommended on Amazon. I have been blown away. Here’s a breakdown of why it’s better:

  • As you can see in the photo above, it is substantially smaller, allowing me to fit a lot more in my bag.
  • It weighs significantly less. 93 grams vs 425 grams. That’s a huge weight savings.
  • It doesn’t use AA batteries, it charges off of USB, which means I can use the same charger for my phone, as my headset. That’s less extra stuff to carry with me – no physical batteries, no having to go and find/buy them, or have a separate recharging system, which is all added weight and size.
  • It can double as a wireless headset to make calls, as it has a built in microphone. That means it provides double duty, where my old Sony headset has no such feature. That also means I don’t have to carry the iPhone headset anymore – another weight/space savings.
  • It doesn’t make sleeping harder by pressing on my ears when I get a window seat. I find the over ear models are way less comfortable when you’re trying to sleep.
  • The sound quality is surprisingly even slightly better than the over-ear model. That may not be a fair comparison, because the Sony headset is an older model, but the quality is good enough that I don’t miss the Sony headset’s sound isolation at all. The Bose is actually slightly better if anything, which I still find amazing even after having it for months.

If you’re interested you can find the QuietComfort headset on their website. It’s pretty good. But if we do move to a Bluetooth only world, we’re going to have to revisit this issue and find a suitable alternative.

Headphone Jacks

There has been quite a bit of talk about the move from having a lightning cable and a headphone jack to doing away entirely with the headphone jack and moving to some other standard on the next iPhone. The idea being you can reduce weight, increase water resistance and use that space for something else entirely.

That would then be replaced by an adapter for your old headphones and a dongle of some sort or you’d switch to using bluetooth headphones.

There have been quite a few exploits against Bluetooth in the past but it’s generally gotten much better. I do, however remember when I saw the Lookout team hacking phones from a mile away with their bluetooth sniper rifle (see the photo I took above). Things have gotten better, yes, but I’m unwilling to claim they’re perfect. As a force of habit I always make sure to disable bluetooth though for several reasons.

  • Bluetooth uses power and battery life, when you’re dependent upon mobile, is paramount.
  • Bluetooth sends information about the device name, which often includes your first name “Tom’s iPhone”. This can be changed but it’s still not great in this heightened age of casual surveillance by retailers as you walk by. I used a similar attack to gather information about criminals as they transited areas that were under tight control.
  • Most importantly, I have no way of knowing what sort of vulnerabilities might be remaining that have not yet been found or disclosed. Turning off Bluetooth guarantees it can’t be abused and since Bluetooth is a proximity based attack, turning it off when you leave your home is actually a decent defense for most people.

I’m all about pulling the plug on old technologies and getting on with life. Even if it does mean proprietary protocols and additional costs, I’m okay with that premise because other manufacturers still allow cheaper backwards compatible options as well. But I do give pause when someone implies wireless technologies are safe. Only time will tell.

But if there is a vulnerability in the chip, say, are we no longer able to safely use our headsets in a Bluetooth only world? It almost seems like Apple might be painting itself into a corner.

Power Only Adapters

One of the more dangerous aspects of owning a phone is getting power. It may seem relatively innocuous most of the time, but USB connectors aren’t exactly free of issues. There have been a great many number of issues in various aspects of USB over the years.

This would be okay, if people only connected USB to the wall, but they also connect it to potentially infected computers. A great many times I’ve found situations where I’ve needed power and the nearest power is totally unknown PC. Not only is it bad for them, but it’s bad for me too. USB is like an infected needle – you really don’t want to be sharing it.

Therefore one quick solution to the problem is a power-only USB adapter. It’s relatively inexpensive – usually around $10. It’s lightweight. It’s easy to use. And most importantly, it works! Of course nothing is perfect, but this is a very handy solution to an annoying security problem. Dual-use power/data cords are always going to be an issue when one of the sides is infected, so these small devices can be a lifesaver.