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Lessons from My Summer Vacation

Posted by cayhorstmann on September 6, 2008 at 6:08 AM PDT

In this blog I reflect on what I learned during my summer vacation, about
standards, folding travel beds, and snatching defeat from the jaws of

1. It's About Standards, Stupid

I spent the summer
in Switzerland (as a guest lecturer in the international summer school at href="">HEIG-VD) and in Germany. In Switzerland, the
visiting students were very cell-phone savvy--they picked up a SIM card at the
airport and phoned away instantly. (One of my colleagues asked how he could put
a SIM card into his Verizon phone. They looked at him as if he was half-witted
and patiently explained that nobody signs up with Verizon or Sprint
because then you can't use your phone when you travel.) Mercifully, I had
considered this point and came prepared with an unlocked GSM phone.

But what to
do in Germany? I crossed by train, and there was no airport kiosk for picking
up a German SIM card. No problem, it turned out. I got it in the supermarket: 5
Euro for a card with 5 Euro worth of calls. To refill it, go to the supermarket
and buy a refill code, then tap that into the cell phone. (This seems a recent
development. My German uncle asked incredulously: "You didn't have to show your
identity card?") Other carriers had different schemes, with refill vending
machines or internet refills. Amazing. No contract. No two-year commitment. The
cost of calling: 9 cents per minute. It is nirvana compared to the hassle that
I have with U.S. carriers. (Case in point: I am currently locked in an epic
battle with T-Mobile which advertises a family plan with 5 members, when their
computer system only takes 3.)

What makes all this innovation possible? A common standard, in this case,
GSM. The various carriers build services on top of the common standard, and
they compete against each other on their merits. Contrast that with the
situation in the U.S. where we have incompatible networks, locked phones, and
plans that hold you hostage for years.

It is experiences such as this one that makes me wary of closed operating
systems and programming platforms.

2. Rocket Science

We traveled with
our 20-month old twins--a proven strategy against jet lag. I learned never to
be smug again about an elegant or intricate algorithm. We computer scientists
may think that red-black trees are pretty clever, but they aren't anywhere near
as impressive as those folding infant travel beds. I have
folded and unfolded them dozens of times, and I still don't understand how all
these metal bars swing into place and collapse into a tiny bundle. How someone
can design such a thing is beyond my ability to comprehend.

3. With Apple's Help, I Snatched Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

My Thinkpad broke on the day of my return--a flickering display. No problem,
I have an on-site repair contract. Except, after the fellow fixed it, it was
worse. Now the display no longer flickers. It is simply black. He'll come back
tomorrow, and if he still can't fix it, I'll have to send it in, thereby
negating the benefit of on-site repair. I had to do something for today's
lecture, so I went to the university bookstore and snapped up a MacBook. Oh,
said the clerk, you get a free iPod. And a free printer. How nice.

One of the pleasant aspects of Apple is always how prettily their stuff is
packaged. Shiny cardboard, tastefully designed foam packaging, just generally a
great out-of-box experience (OOBE). The lecture was in a mere thirty minutes,
but no problem. I was on the network in no time, installed href="">Aquamacs and Scala, and ... realized that I had
no way of projecting my lecture. The MacBook doesn't have a VGA connector. No
problem--DVI is the way to go in this millennium, and of course I have a DVI to
VGA converter.

But the MacBook
doesn't have a DVI connector either. Instead, it has some href="">bizarre Apple-proprietary Mini DVI
connector, and Apple is too cheap to include a converter with the computer.
The bookstore was out of converters, and I had to admit defeat. Hello, Apple,
if you put a non-standard connector on your machine, and you want people to
have a great OOBE, put a converter into the box. It's about standards,


GSM is not the only standard. Check this . It just so happened that the battle between european cellular companies and Qualcomm resulted in this split standard. Have you heard of the interference GSM causes every few seconds? . GSM call quality and data speeds are inferior to that of CDMA. Europe did not allow CDMA to enter thereby allowing GSM to have a monopoly. There is a difference between standard and competition.

The first prepaid GSM services in Europe appeared in 1997. I remember because I was there programming the software that handles call registration and billing for this country's biggest (then, not sure about now) network. Of course the prepaid calls aren't billed to accounts so they had to be filtered out and (for tax reasons) stored.

No Big Brother, all that's stored is which number calls which number at what time and for what duration, the records only available after a ream of paperwork.

For prepaid no identification has ever been needed (though that's probably going to change now that some politicians have gotten the notion that criminals and (shudder) terrorists can use prepaid phones to make phonecalls that are impossible to trace to a specific person. Never mind that they can just as easily use stolen phones or hack into landlines and indeed do.

Most cellphones here too are locked to a specific network, after all the network operator who provides the phone for free (actually you're charged for it through higher rates) as part of the call plan does want to get his investment back. But you can put any SIM into any unlocked phone and as you discovered it will work. US GSM networks will work the same way, if they ever get widespread enough to be useful.

Plans usually run for either a year or two years, with the two year plan having lower rates to reward your guaranteed business. Of course for prepaid there's no plan, but your rates are higher as a result. Personally I don't care. Service is excellent and rates are such that there's little difference between networks, so why switch? I've been with T-Mobile now for over 2 years, just renewed my plan for another year, changing from KPN only because the plan I had with them (which I could have changed to something else) didn't have mobile internet coverage (which didn't exist when I signed on to it back in '98).

Ah, so true about the Apple laptops. Mind you, when I got my powerbook in 2004 it still had a DVI connector on the Laptop and came with a DVI-VGA converter. This is also like the iPods, before you'd get cables, docks and power adaptors. Now you just get a USB cable. Cheap bastards :-)