All the World’s a Stage

Now that Osama Bin Laden has been snuffed out, you can be sure that just about every major video game franchise out there set in modern-day war zones will have offer some sort of reenactment of the the event.

I know it’s wrong, but what will that be teaching us? I play a lot of video games, and the militaristic, “Nuke ’em all!” sentiment that video games can generate is very subtle and incredibly powerful. The problem is, we don’t know the effects that these mass-media and major cultural events will have on future generations. The difference between this and something like Grand Theft Auto (as the poster child of video game extremism) is that we, as a society, condone killing in a militaristic and highly organized fashion. We tell people it’s OK to put on a uniform and kill people, that holding a gun and putting bullets into “terrorists” is a good thing, as long as the “terrorists” are wearing turbans and the settings are all in dusty hamlets with Arabic-sounding names.

It’s not. I’m not sure how I feel about the possibility of this type of stuff getting into peoples’ heads as “awesome.”

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Dodging the Bullet

It’s no secret that I’m significantly against the junk that a lot of the carriers setting up to ultimately bleed consumers dry. The mobile space evolved rapidly and, like the banking system, carriers are seeing a great opportunity to sink their teeth into some of that sweet mobile meat. They’re actively working (behind the scenes for now) to create a situation that is incredibly anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

As the Internet evolves and becomes increasingly more mobile, we will undoubtedly begin to see carriers introduce “competitive” mobile internet plans, “tiered” pricing, “premium” services and/or access to certain services, etc. We aren’t seeing that right now because most people access their internet through terrestrial (land-based) wiring. Cable modems, DSL, and fiber are still the de facto standard, but imagine what the Internet landscape will look like next year. How about three years from now? Yeah. Mobile carriers want in on that, and they’ll lie and cheat their way into that system to do so.

So how does the consumer protect him or herself against this impending battle?

My solution, thus far, has been the trifecta of Google Voice, Apple, and another unlikely hero: TracFone

I can hear you saying it right now. “Whoa whoa whoa…TracFone?” Yes, TracFone. Any other prepaid service will do just fine (Net10, StraightTalk, etc.)

To understand my thought process on this, we’re going to have to take a little trip in the Wayback Machine. Here we go.

Not so very long ago, Apple unveiled, with the release of the iPhone 4, a technology (or protocol) it calls “FaceTime.” I predicted a little while ago that Apple will be using this technology as a way to skirt the carriers and get all their iOS devices to level where they are capable of “making a call” to other iOS devices. With a huge number of people around the world using the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on a daily basis, it wouldn’t be far fetched to think that this can become a way for people to call each other and talk face to face (in case you haven’t noticed, we live in the future). I also predicted that they will be leveraging a rumored update to MobileMe that will essentially be the backbone of this new “service,” routing their FaceTime calls, allowing people to update their statuses so people know when they’re available or busy, etc. Now, the source link is outdated (I chalk that up to iPad 2 media insanity). We’re nearing the end of April and we haven’t heard so much as a peep from Apple. I still stand behind this idea, however.

People have asked me (as they always do), if I’m going to buy the next iPhone. This time, I don’t think so. I don’t think that the iPhone has the same value it did when it was first released, mostly because it comes with a pair of leg irons in the for of a service contract from either AT&T or Verizon. I wouldn’t touch either of those plans with a ten foot pole anymore. I believe that the iPod Touch is where it’s at right now. It does apps, does FaceTime, and any sort of Internet you can throw at it. It doesn’t come with a service contract, it’s thinner, lighter, and comes with higher storage capacity (not that you’ll need it with all this cloud stuff going on, but it’s good to have in case you would like to, oh, I don’t know, watch Star Wars.) If you look at my previous guide to get started with Google Voice, we can take it a step further.

Start there, contact me with any questions, and we’ll scaffold further over the course of the next week. For everyone with every possible phone need, there’s a plan that will work for a fraction of the cost you’re paying now, guaranteed.


The Fourth Dimension…er…Generation

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One of my recent blog posts detailed the transition from a carrier-centric model of communicating to a user-centric model. This transition has been, for many people, difficult to understand and/or accomplish due to the ingrained carrier model that so many people are programmed to know. There are so many other ways to communicate, and people who embrace rapidly evolving technology will find themselves on the forefront of a new paradigm of that communication. It’s ridiculous that, in our world of super fast mobile broadband, we still pay carriers ridiculous fees for “minutes” that many of us never use.

The thing is, carriers know this. Carriers know that the future of communication looks more like what I’m doing on my own right now, and not like what they’re trying to push on everyone in American with their advertising wars. Sure, iPhones are great, but when your carrier is cutting your neck and hanging you upside-down over a bucket just so you can use the latest and greatest phone, you’ve got a problem. Phones should not have a “privilege tax” associated with them just because they can run apps.

In a recent discussion with a family member, the topic of “outrageous” pricing for data plans was mentioned. The family member in question pays around $40-50 monthly for a regional voice plan that includes far more minutes than he will ever use (obviously long-distance calls are extra). Up until recently, he did not have any means of communicating via SMS, and added on a $5/month messaging package. Recently, he wanted to upgrade his phone to something running the Android operating system so that he could browse the internet from his phone. He was taken aback, however, when the carrier representative told him that this phone required a $30/month data package. He was upset, but for the wrong reason.

“Can you believe it?” he asked me, “They wanted to charge me $30 a month for data! That’s crazy!”

“No,” I told him, “what’s crazy is that you’re paying $40-$50 each month for voice. I’m talking to you right now on a $25/month data plan. Talking.”

This took a little while to sink in. He didn’t quite get what I was saying, so I explained it to him.

Carriers charge their customers for voice airtime “minutes,” which are essentially packets of data that are prioritized over all other forms of communication in their cell towers. Each minute of talk time is like a reservation of the cell tower’s resources, requiring that the cell tower allocates a certain amount of its processing power and bandwidth to handle that single call. SMS messages consume such a tiny, infinitesimally small amount of that bandwidth that they have no impact whatsoever on the network. Other data (e.g. the Internet) is doled out as the cell tower allocates it. Carriers regularly cite all sorts of statistics regarding their mobile data usage, saying that it’s been increasing exponentially, uses more network backhaul than ever before and yadda yadda yadda. The true killer here is voice, and the shift to pure data will happen right under your nose. That being said, carriers will try to mask it all they can in order to charge you an arm and a leg for something that is not inherently different from anything else they offer.

4G, which is this buzzword that all sorts of carriers are throwing around now (some of whom don’t even have a true 4G network), is a data-only service right now. Data. 4G technology gives users more than enough bandwidth to be able to talk and browse the internet simultaneously. Heck, 4G networks have enough power to allow people to simultaneously video chat and and browse the internet simultaneously. I know, I’ve tried it, and they’re fast. A carrier could easily offer just a simple, flat-rate 4G internet plan for…say $40/month. For that, a person could talk, “text,” and browse the internet essentially without being limited by arbitrary caps to minutes, messages, or data consumption. Heck, we could even say $60/month could get you those privileges. “Wow, that’s cheap!” you might say. That’s right, it is, because those plans aren’t accompanied by the all-too-familiar “voice minutes” that we’re used to seeing now. All our voice is data right now, anyway, but carriers simply charge you differently for it.

Now, here’s the kicker. The carriers want to keep swindling you out of your money. They want to keep pulling every last dime they can out of you, and the way things are looking for mobile net neutrality, it looks like they’ll be able to. Recent laws that have been passed by Congress limit the amount of power the FCC has over mobile carriers, which essential allows them to charge you whatever they want for the “services” they offer. With the possible consolidation of T-Mobile under AT&T later this year (or early next year), this puts the American mobile consumer in dangerous territory. Verizon and AT&T will rule the air, and Sprint will carve out a niche (hopefully by offering real value in their services).

Ultimately, the mobile giants will find ways to squeeze extra money out of America by differentiating “voice” and “data.” This is insane, and you shouldn’t stand for it.

My next article will outline a plan to circumvent the impending storm, essentially to sandbag against a possible assault agains the mobile consumer space. This sounds crazy, I know, but it’s already happening. 4G will be the de facto standard very soon, and 5G will start to peek its head out from the horizon. What then? If Verizon and AT&T are doing this now, what will they do in five years? Ten? The future looks bleak, but stay tuned for ways to skirt the whole thing and save a pretty penny in the process.


Just like the ZaggSparq


 

AppleInsider | Apple may build its own external battery pack for recharging on the go.

I’ve been using the ZaggSparq for months and love it.  It’s a little costly, but the mobility it provides is invaluable.  One of these things basically doubles your mobility.  I can stay away from outlets all day, and recharge the ‘Sparq at night.  Highly recommended.

ZaggSparq


Use the Force, Paul, or: How I Beat the AT&T Death Star

What a great movie.In case you haven’t noticed, the 21st century is upon us. Aside from my flying car, there are a few other neat Jetson gadgets that I’m looking for that I have, in a way, already found.

One of the other things that I’m looking for is freedom from this ridiculous carrier-centric phone world. There should be no reason that an iPhone (or any other phone, for that matter) cannot be used on other networks (barring technological incompatibilities between technologies like GSM and CDMA). There should also be no reason for carriers to charge me an exorbitant amount of money for “minutes” that I do not use. Before reaching through the void into the world of sweet, sweet data, my monthly phone bill was around $175.00 for two lines, unlimited messaging, 700 voice minutes, and unlimited data. I had almost 4,000 rollover minutes accrued since I re-upped my plan last July (when I got the iPhone 4).

Four. Thousand.

Clearly, the majority of my monthly bill (about $80.00) was being put towards minutes that I was very rarely using. Some months would see both phones using less than 100 minutes combined. I was paying for more minutes than I would ever want to use, but there was no way for me to get a data-only plan on my phone unless I a) could prove that I was hearing-impaired, or b) devised some way to get a data-only SIM card and somehow provision my phone to take advantage of that.

I went with option b.

What I noticed when I first started playing with my first iPad was that the SIM card in both the iPad and iPhone 4 are of the “Micro-SIM” variety, which means they’re just a fraction of the size of a normal SIM card. Surely there had to be a way to use the iPad SIM card in the iPhone, right?

Sadly, a quick swap of the SIM cards yielded no results for the iPhone, and while the iPad could receive data, it couldn’t make any calls. Not that I’d want to hold that up to my head to talk, anyway. I gave up on the idea of a cheap pocket web portal and decided that I’d just start sterilizing my arm for removal.

Fast forward almost a year, over a thousand dollars in payments to the Empire, and I’m fed up. I don’t need this. Time to bust out my Jedi skills on this Death Star.

The key player in all of this is a powerful and evolving service that Google offers called Google Voice. For those familiar with the service, Google voice can be leveraged to free your number from your carrier and place it “in the cloud,” allowing you to open up a new line of service with any carrier, but with a little extra weight behind your bargaining because you don’t have to purchase a heavily subsidized phone. Plans can be purchased on a month-to-month basis instead of on a contractual basis. Negotiating with those carriers can be tough, though, so you’ll have to brush up on your Jedi Mind Tricks.

Porting Your Number

The first thing you’ll need to do is port your number over to Google Voice. For true freedom, this is really the only way to go. When I had separate Google Voice and AT&T phone numbers, people were simply confused when I would contact them from one or the other. They’d constantly be asking me which number was my “real” number, or why I keep changing phones. For my friends, it didn’t matter that much. For my family, it was confusing. I’ve always been on the cutting edge of technological trends, and trying to explain this cutting-edge VOIP service was difficult, especially since my parents have had the same phone plans for the better part of a decade. Porting is easy, but there are a few things you need to know. Here’s what it boils down to:

  1. Porting your number to Google Voice will cancel your current phone line with your carrier. This is effective almost immediately, despite taking a while for the transition to complete on the back end.
  2. Google charges you $20.00 for porting your number.
  3. If you are still under contract with your carrier, you are on the hook for the ETF. This is can be pretty high, depending on how much time you have left before your contract is up.
  4. Text messages will take several days to route properly. If, like me, you sometimes suffer from communication overload, this will be a blessing for you. When people ask you if you got their message, you can legitimately say, “Nope, I was porting my number over to another carrier.” Done deal.
  5. You cannot make outgoing calls using Google Voice. Technically. You can, however, use Google Voice to approximate the normal “phone” experience really well. I’ll go into that soon.
  6. Google Voice software for the iPhone leaves a lot to be desired. It works, it’ll get you where you need to go, but none of it is perfect. I’m sure Google will get around to updating its iPhone app eventually, but it needs a lot of work right now. Just a heads-up.

Setting Up Seamless Calling

This is tricky. I’m not going to lie, I was extremely frustrated with my calls until I explored my options a bit. You can benefit from my experimentation here.

Google Voice isn’t a phone. Instead, Google Voice connects phone numbers together. For the tinfoil hat crowd out there, this might be a dealbreaker. Google is going to have your voice passing through their servers, period. There’s no way to do this without having Google act as the middleman. I don’t care about this, because I figure they’ve got enough data on me already. If you’re already here, though, you probably don’t care too much about that.

Because Google Voice doesn’t actually make any calls, you have to find a reliable way to receive calls on your phone without actually paying for minutes. I found the solution in a couple places. Skype and TextFree are all services with various degrees of free and paid options that provide VOIP service. Of those two, I’d say that TextFree is definitely, unequivocally, the best option I tested. The basic process for both, however, is the same. With Skype, you’re going to need two paid plans to properly route calls. One plan to allow unlimited incoming and outgoing calls, another to give you an “online number” that people can call. The combined cost of these two services is around $60.00. Not bad, especially considering that this gives you a year of unlimited calling to US-based numbers. You then need to add your newly-purchased Skype number to your Google Voice settings. Under normal circumstances, Google Voice would then call you, ask you to enter the code it displays on the screen, and you’d be all set. This is where it starts to break down,

I will say this as plainly and clearly as I can: Skype’s app is horrible. When I say horrible, I mean absolutely awful. I don’t know if they gave the coding and design over to a bunch of blind, epileptic monkeys or if they’re really just that bad. At this point, if they told me the monkey story, I’d say it makes sense. The fact that this software got out the door under human watch, however, is not good. There are so many failings, but here’s the biggest one: the Skype app doesn’t use Apple’s standard push notifications, it uses some sort of bastardization of local notifications. The end result is that 9/10 attempts to contact you will be lost to voicemail, and 9/10 attempts to contact someone else will result in that person being greeted by dead air. I could really go on and on, but it’s best you read my review on iTunes. It’s scathing.

Assuming you can get the verification to work, you’ll be all set to make and receive calls from your new Google Voice number. Google Voice acts as the middle man – it contacts you first; when you pick up (if Skype actually notifies you there’s an incoming call, that is), Google Voice rings the other number. Skype’s call quality is high, probably the highest of the possible apps I tried, so it wins points there.

The other solution is TextFree with Voice for iPhone. TextFree, as far as I can tell, is almost flawless. TextFree allows you to receive unlimited incoming calls, which is perfect. Once again, “placing” a call through Google Voice actually tells Google Voice to ring the number you select (TextFree), which then pops up on your screen as an “incoming call.” When you answer the call in TextFree, Google Voice rings the other party. This, however, is almost flawless. TextFree with Voice uses Apple’s standard notification system, so the incoming calls pop up instantly. It’s amazing. And it’s free. No monthly or yearly costs if you don’t want to pay. I dropped $6.00 to eliminate the in-app ads, because I feel like the developers made a damn good app.

There are other VOIP solutions that you can pair with Google Voice, but these two were the best I’ve found so far (even though the Skype app is made of fail). If you have any questions about this, email me, I’m happy to help.

The final steps to making your phone work with an iPad SIM can be found here.

I’ve gone from paying $175.00 a month to $75.00 a month for two phones, unlimited texting, and all the voice I can eat. My data usage (including the occasional video chat on 3G) comes to about 2-3 GB/month, which means that I get the occasional $10.00 overage charge for an extra gig of data. No big deal. Wifi is, as always, free, so I don’t pay for data when I’m home or at a Starbucks banging out posts.

The other thing this does is changes the feel of the iPhone from a phone to a portable web portal. This actually makes a huge difference in how I interact with it. Instead of pulling it out to make calls and send texts, I use it like an iPad mini, and it makes total sense this way. All data, all the time.

Plus, I get to be a rebel. Can’t put a price on that.


Kinaesthetics

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I’ve spent the past week or so using my iPad essentially sans home button, and it’s amazing. I’m convinced that this is how the iPad was meant to work. The multitouch gestures enable me to flip between apps with my hand like shuffling books around on a desk. Sliding four fingers up on the screen is so natural, like pushing a stack of paper slightly out of the way to peek underneath it. It actually feels tactile, like I’m actually moving the screen ever so slightly. It’s really an amazing way to interact with a magic window.

Aside from that, though, it’s incredible physical. I find myself getting into my work more, making larger gestures with my arms and body as I’m interacting with my iPad. Maybe that makes me look like a crazy person, but it makes the entire iPad experience that much more engaging. How many gadgets/appliances do you actually get into like that?

And, it’s that little extra geekery that gets me through the day, natch.


Like “Eagle Eye,” But Nicer


Last year, a great deal of industry powerhouses gathered together at a conference to discuss the future of MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) that will be integrated into all aspects of our lives, be used to gather formerly impossible-to-gather data, and generally open doors to a future that we can only imagine (and possibly aren’t equipped to imagine yet). When I read about these advancements and dreams, I couldn’t help think about the incessant march of progress towards the world of tomorrow.

I recently read an interview with the founder of Foursquare, who was talking about recent advances in smartphone technology and how his business (and other businesses) could leverage not-yet available sensing technology to create device that acts as more of a companion than a communication device, something that could keep a person aware of his or her surroundings through better use of the device’s built-in sensors.

“If you think of the phone as a bunch of sensors stuck in this device connected to the network, how can I walk around the city and have the phone come alive and remind me, ‘Oh this is a place you should go to lunch” or “this is the place you read an article about 6 months ago.'”

The thing is, this really isn’t anything new. Intel CEO Paul Otellini has been talking about this type of integration for years, and we see the idea crop up again here through Intel CTO Justin Rattner’s use of the phrase “context-aware computing.”

The thing is, people get sorta jittery when things like this start popping up in the news. No one really knows what the future will look like, but they do know that they don’t want some Orwellian “Big Brother” watching every move they make and cataloguing all of their habits. The problem with that sort of paranoia, however, is that it’s already happening, and we’re actually glad about. I’m no conspiracy theorist, and I don’t subscribe to the whole “Internet privacy” thing. I know it’s an illusion. My point is that I would really like a device that’s totally integrated into my life, I would like my phone to pipe up and say, “Hey Paul, I know you like gardens, and there’s a really neat garden around the corner from here.” Does that violate my privacy? No, not really, because I told my phone to let me know about things like that. Does that open the door for someone (or something) to track my habits, movement, and preferences?

Not any more than they do right now. The point here, without sounding too kooky, is that in order for devices to reach the next level of usefulness, a deeper level of integration into our lives, we will need to realize that all the data we’ve been providing corporations, marketing agencies, and *gasp* the government can actually be used to make our lives a little more pleasant. That sounds kinda nice to me.

Location:Dennis Dr,Northbrook,United States