Thursday, May 29, 2014

FreedomPop "free" plan is a bit dishonest

I've recently been exploring the world of FreedomPop on behalf of a friend who is going through a really rough patch in his life. FreedomPop sells WiFi hotspot devices that supposedly get 500MB of data per month for free. The only thing to pay for is the device itself, which will set someone back about $50. It sounds awesome, but that's really all it is.

The old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" definitely applies here. This plan is marketed as 500MB of data per month for free "forever" (the 'forever' is implied). Even 3 years of use (i.e. until the lithium ion battery wears out) would be enough to help my friend out in a significant way. I was willing to play guinea pig for this interesting service because I also have some potential use for it.

So, I went and bought the device, which set me back a little over $50 (after tax). Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. And pretty much forgot about it until it randomly showed up about a month and a half later. In addition, these devices are "refurbished", but who really cares about that as long as they work? At any rate, the extensive waiting is the first warning sign that something might be fishy here.

The device that arrives is a "Sprint (now Netgear) Overdrive Pro (3G/4G)" hotspot. The free plan claims to run only on 4G (you have to pay to get 3G), which is technically accurate. What FreedomPop fails to mention up front is that it only runs on 4G WiMAX and that the device has no support for 4G LTE. So you can be bathed in 4G LTE service all day long but the device will never connect to it. It's a tad misleading as users think they will be connecting to 4G regardless of the type of 4G service. Unless a user is intimately familiar with all of the various forms of 4G out there, it is unreasonable to expect them to understand the difference between 4G WiMAX, 4G LTE, and other 4G variants.

Additionally, the device has to be manually configured before it will function properly. This may be beyond the skill set of some users. The 3G PRL and 3G profile have to be updated via the admin before it will connect to 3G. Again, 3G isn't free but it will connect once the PRL and profile are updated. The first time I tried this, the device had fits and I had to perform a soft reset (hold the reset button for six seconds while it is powered on) and try again before it succeeded the second time. Also, firmware updates have to be applied via the admin before 4G WiMAX will function at optimal settings. That last part is tricky because it looks like a large batch of refurbished devices, including mine, were modified in a way that prevents updates from being applied to the device. It appears that someone intentionally changed the SKU of each device from SKU 1453010 to SKU 1453012. The device firmware checks the SKU and checksums of a new firmware before applying it. So multiple users are getting the message "The update cannot proceed. There is a SKU version mismatch." when they upload the latest firmware.

(It may(!) be possible to alter the SKU of the device via a configuration file import, but the importer appears to verify a checksum, so that creates a new problem since the configuration file can't simply be edited with a text editor. The "simple" solution to that problem is to find someone with a SKU 1453010 device and import their configuration, which should correct the problem and allow the firmware update to proceed. I am still working on this approach, so don't do anything here. I'm willing to brick my device at this point.)

Also, Sprint is terminating WiMAX service in 2015. Anyone on the free plan currently able to get 4G WiMAX service will suddenly have a paperweight unless they sign up and pay for 3G service. 3G still enjoys a wider adoption rate, but, as anyone who has used 3G knows, it is rather sluggish.

Basically this reads as:

Warehouse operator: "Oh man, we've got all these devices sitting around our warehouse and Sprint is going to make them basically useless in under a year. We need to move this inventory out right now."

Marketing director: "I know! We can just give users WiMAX for free but not tell them about it until they've received the device and try to use it. We'll just advertise it as a 'free service with 4G only' because people will love the idea of 'free 4G'. We'll get rid of the devices and make some money."

It's definitely a brilliant strategy for moving inventory that no one will want soon enough. In addition, the way it is being marketed also phrases it such that people can be misled to believing that they will also get 3G service for free, which they won't. It is a bit dishonest to do that to people. In particular, this plan is being advertised to people who are classified as "low income" as being a way to get free Internet access "everywhere" they go (the 'everywhere' is implied). If 4G WiMAX is readily available in the area, it might be a viable temporary solution for someone who has no Internet access. It is also potentially useful as a device for setting up a quick WiFi LAN between two WiFi enabled devices vs. messing around with ad-hoc networks. So it isn't really a scam, but the way it is marketed isn't completely honest either - being especially unfair to low income individuals and families who can't afford a $50 loss.

If it had worked out (i.e. 4G LTE capable), this plan would be a game changer in the industry. It would force every telecom to finally lower their rates to sane levels. If you pay more than $10/month for unlimited text, talk, and data, then you are being ripped off and are paying too much for service.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Is Firefox 29.0 "ugly"? Then try this...

I run Windows 7 Ultimate, full Aero effects, and Firefox. The most recent update of Firefox to version 29.0 resulted in yet another redesign of the tabs. This redesign is very unfortunate because it makes the text completely unreadable. I have some very choice words for the Firefox developers about their general competence, but that's not what this post is about.

This post is for the average user that this garbage release was foisted upon. I've been running the fix for about a week now and, while not perfect, it is much better than not being able to read the text on my tabs at all.

Go here:

Click "Add to Firefox". Done.

That's the best theme I could find that balances readability, usability, and some semblance of elegance.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Reinventing the office chair

My current office chair I use at home that I bought a decade ago for about $100 (it was on sale) is starting to fall apart. One would hope that innovation over a decade would result in improvements.

First off, the office chair you sit in probably looks like this:

If you are lucky to work for a really nice employer, you might get one of these:


You know what the ironic thing is? Neither of those chairs were designed to be sat in, yet they cost just as much as (if not more than) a decent chair. Those chairs exist due to some insane thought process that managers and executives get nicer chairs to sit in as a person moves up the corporate ladder. I'm sorry, but that's just cruel. If you are going to sit in a chair for 6-12 hours a day, then it had better be comfortable to sit in regardless of who you are. Sitting in the wrong chair for hours on end can and will result in regular headaches and/or migraines (I'm speaking from personal experience here).

So what constitutes a comfortable chair? Leather vs. cloth is usually the first thing people consider. I consider other things. For instance, when I wake up in the morning, I sit in my office chair and put my bare feet on the legs. If the legs of the chair were made of metal, I'd be really annoyed because metal tends to be colder than plastic. Fortunately, the legs of my current chair are made of plastic.

I also lean back in my chair and rest my head. I have what is known as a "high-back" office chair. I measured the back of my current chair as being 28" tall (starting from the inside). I can find fairly cheap chairs that come up to 27" tall. That one inch difference is night and day - I have to tilt my head back uncomfortably to reach the headrest on a 27" chair. To get a 28" back on a chair, I have to go to the "big and tall" section, which immediately adds $250 to the price tag (probably because of hydraulic systems that support heavy people, which I don't need). Unfortunately, the closest chair to my desired measurements that I can find has...metal legs...arg! My $100 decade-old chair beats a $350 chair that's made today. As you can imagine, this is incredibly frustrating AND a waste of my time. Time better spent developing software!

Alright, enough ranting. Onto my wonderfully innovative idea: The ability to craft your own modular office chair from compatible parts. I would love to be able to mix and match:

  • Seat
  • Back
  • Armrests
  • Hydraulic system
  • Legs
  • Rollers
I could buy each part individually and then put the whole thing together myself. I'd be able to put together a $175 office chair that meets all of my requirements in half an hour from a single shopping trip. This isn't rocket science and it is VERY silly that we don't have this yet.

Through my recent experience, I've come to the singular conclusion that one size does NOT fit all. We should all go to our local office supply stores and request that they start carrying modular office chair equipment.