Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about Verizon and the iPhone, Facebook, and more.

Your tech questions answered.
June 11 2010 4:27 PM

Will My iPhone Dreams Ever Come True?

Slate's tech-advice column on whether Verizon will ever get the iPhone, spying on your kids on Facebook, and more.

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If you've got a burning tech problem you want solved, please send a note to farhad.manjoo@slate.com, with "I've got a tech question!" as the subject line. (Your question may be edited.) You can also read previous "Dear Farhad" columns.

Dear Farhad,
I read an article recently that suggested the iPhone could soon be available on T-Mobile. I've also read that the iPhone may be coming to Verizon. A little bit of research shows that people have been making similar claims for a long time. Is it all wishful thinking by folks who want the iPhone but can't stand AT&T? Is it some kind of PR effort by Apple's competitors meant to trick us into holding off buying the iPhone? So, what do you think—should I wait just a little bit longer for the iPhone to come to another cell-phone carrier?

—Tired of Waiting

Dear Tired,
Waiting for the iPhone to come to Verizon is sort of like waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series. In theory, it's overdue to happen, and when it does, it will be huge. But until then, it's best to treat it as a fantasy—an event so unlikely that we'd be wise to go about our normal lives until we see real evidence of it actually occurring.

Right now, there are no clear indications that the iPhone will break free from AT&T anytime soon. Many of the stories suggesting otherwise cite either industry analysts or anonymous insiders. But industry analysts are notoriously dodgy about Apple's future (we'd been hearing that an Apple tablet was just around the corner since 2002), and anyone actually in a position to know has no incentive to talk about it. (Apple doesn't want to dampen current iPhone sales by leaking news of a future Verizon version.)

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What do we know about Apple's deal with AT&T? Not much. In a court case earlier this year, Apple confirmed that it signed an exclusive five-year contract with AT&T in 2007. But that doesn't mean you should expect magical things in 2012—we have no word on what's happened to the contract since then. It's possible, and maybe even likely, that the two companies made some change that could give other companies access to the iPhone later or earlier. We have no idea.

So what's the best way to shop for a smartphone in the meantime? First, assume the iPhone will be exclusive to AT&T for the foreseeable future. Second, if you're interested, try out an iPhone—buy one and see how AT&T's network works in all of the places you frequent. If it's a lemon, you can take the phone back within 30 days. Also try out other smartphones in the iPhone's class (Motorola's Droid, HTC's Evo) on their respective networks. Another option is to buy an unlocked iPhone and use it on T-Mobile, whose cellular protocol is compatible with AT&T's (though you won't get the fastest networking speeds under this scenario).

iPhone 4. Click image to expand.
iPhone

What if you're unlucky enough to commit to one of these alternatives just before Apple unveils a Verizon iPhone? That would be tough, but not the end of the world. You can wait two years. By then someone will have invented something better.

—Farhad

Dear Farhad,
I've heard many stories of parents who check out their kids' Facebook accounts after the kids have blocked them. How does this work?

—Just Curious, I Swear

Dear Curious,
I don't think you should spy on your kids. But I'm not a parent, so what do I know? I may well change my tune in 15 years. By then I could probably get some kind of implantable chip to monitor my spawn's every fleeting thought. In the meantime, there are a few other ways to peer into your kid's digital life.

You could go low-tech: Spy on him through his friends. Even if your progeny is savvy enough to have blocked you from his Facebook account, some of his friends might not take privacy as seriously (or they may not understand how porous Facebook's default privacy settings can be). While you could glean valuable intel from what his peers are posting to the site, I'd advise against going so far as "friending" your kid's friends. While this seems to be a hot topic of debate among tech-age parents, it strikes me as a bit too creepy and stalkerish to consider. Your kid will also surely figure out what you've been up to.

Speaking of creepy, if your child does grant you access to his profile (and surveys suggest that many kids do), don't wear out your welcome. Don't wish him good luck on that Spanish test, don't tag him in baby pictures, and don't step in to congratulate him when he changes his status to "In a relationship." Also, you might want to consider restricting parts of your own profile from your children. Do you want your kids to see those pictures of you streaking across the quad your freshman year? If not, go to your privacy settings and hide "Photos and videos I'm tagged in" from your kids.

Finally, there is a high-tech way to find out what your kids are doing on their computers: Install spy software. These programs track keystrokes, network traffic, and other data on the PC and then report back to you. I haven't used any of these programs, and I wouldn't recommend you do, either. They represent a profound violation of your kid's privacy (not to mention that of everyone else who uses the computer, including your spouse), and if you have to resort to such measures, you probably need more than tech advice. Also, if your kid finds out, he'll probably just go to another computer or to a smartphone that isn't vulnerable to such software. And then you'll be blocked for good.

—Farhad

Dear Farhad,
I've had three hard-drive failures in 12 months, and each time I've lost my music, movies, and photos. I've got about 150 GB of data. What is the least fussy, cheapest, and most foolproof home strategy to stop this from happening?

—Backup Slacker

Dear Slacker,
I feel for you; I, too, used to be a backup slacker. I didn't have a great reason other than laziness—most of the backup tools I looked up required too much work. But as I wrote in my review of backup tools in 2008, there are now plenty of easy ways to safeguard your data. No more excuses!

The first option: Buy an external hard drive. These are quite inexpensive (you could get a 1 TB drive, which would house all your data with plenty room to spare, for about $90), and they usually come with backup software (the software usually isn't great, but it works). Another option is to store your data with an online backup company—my favorite is Mozy, which lets you back up 2 GB for free or an unlimited amount of data on a single computer for $55 a year. Mozy works automatically, silently, in the background: It mirrors all your data to the company's servers. In the event of a disaster at home, your data remain unharmed.

—Farhad

Dear Farhad,
I need to keep three small children entertained on a long plane flight. I'd like to find some way to let them watch movies, but I'm not sure my laptop's battery will be up to it. Should I buy an iPad? Portable DVD players? Also, how do I split the audio between them? I don't want to bother other passengers.

—Keeping My Sanity at 30,000 Feet

Dear 30,000 Feet,
Forget the iPad. It's too expensive for your needs, and it doesn't have a DVD player, which leaves you at the mercy of iTunes for movies. I'd go with portable DVD players. You can pick them up for as little as $60—buy three and you won't have any fights. I'd also recommend purchasing noise-canceling headphones. Standard headphones would need to be turned up too loud to overcome the noise of the plane, and that's not good for young ears. With noise-canceling headphones, kids can keep the DVD volume much lower. Also, of course, be sure to take along lots of DVDs. If you subscribe to Netflix's three-at-a-time plan, you can let each of the kids choose a movie beforehand. Good luck!

—Farhad

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