When Siri was unveiled with the introduction of the iPhone 4S, there were a lot of very intrigued, very happy people. Already, in my usage of Siri with my new iPhone 4S, I find myself pleasantly surprised with the things I’m able to do, and how easy Siri makes so many of the things I’m used to doing. Naturally, there are some shortcomings. Since I use an unlocked 4S with the T-Mobile network, I’m relegated to EDGE when not on wi-fi (how was this speed ever acceptable?), and communication with Siri is woefully slow. I wish I had the scratch to pull off an AT&T subscription, but I just don’t right now.
This got me thinking, however. Since the 4S relies on a persistent, high-speed network to deliver results to the user, what happens when a person has a slow connection, or is in a wireless dead zone? The ability for Siri to function as an interface diminishes dramatically, leaving a person only able to interact with the data that is already on his or her phone. While this normally would not be a problem, anyone looking for Siri functionality in a wireless dead zone is going to be frustrated, period. Naturally, the last thing Apple wants is unhappy customers, so what can Apple do to circumvent this situation?
I found the answer in the iPod Shuffle.
This little device, as many know, is what one might call one of Apple’s lesser-loved projects. At the time of its inception, it filled a necessary void–that of a low-cost music player bearing the iconic Apple logo and “iPod” name. It was my first iPod, and, I’d wager, the first iPod for many others, as well. The problem with the iPod Shuffle, now, is it lacks features. It isn’t relevant anymore. When the shuffle was introduced, MP3 players, including the iPod Classic, were large and relatively bulky, and their battery life left something to be desired. The Shuffle had long battery life, was capable of syncing with iTunes, and offered people an interesting alternative to the blue-hued screens and click wheels of their larger cousins. The storage was all flash, which meant that it wasn’t prone to hard drive failures in the same way the iPod Classic was, and that it could play all day on a single charge.
Since the Shuffle lacked a screen, however, there was no way for a user to really know what was about to play. Apple solved this with their “VoiceOver” feature, which was able to announce the name of the playing track or playlist, or the remaining battery life. In order to do this, however, the user needs to give up some storage space on their device to make room for the VoiceOver data. For some, this is an easy tradeoff, since it adds a sense of depth to the diminutive device. Tuck that in the back of your mind for a moment.
It was recently discovered that the iPhone 4S contains a dedicated sound-processing chip that enables it to better separate your voice from background noise, which increases its ability to recognize what you’re saying before sending that data off to Siri for processing and language recognition. All this data being sent to Siri means that there are a great deal of sound snippets that Apple has at its disposal to refine and improve its voice-recognition and accuracy. The more people use Siri, the better it gets, and the better it gets, the more people use it. Eventually, I believe, Apple will be able to “distill” certain Siri queries down to their core components, picking out speech patterns and pull user voices away from background noises more easily. Furthermore, Apple will be able to condense certain components of Siri down to include that functionality on devices that don’t have a persistent wireless connection, and significantly speed up Siri queries on devices that do. Naturally, looking up restaurants on Yelp or finding out data from Wolfram is going to require a connection to the internet, but things like setting reminders, calendar appointments, taking notes, and playing music can all (theoretically) be done locally, without a persistent data connection. This would allow Apple to install Siri on all of its devices. When the device has a wireless connection, it would be able to upload usage statistics, and download changes to the onboard Siri database while doing its nightly iCloud backup.
Naturally, the user might have to sacrifice some storage space, but it would allow even the iPod shuffle to become a “personal computer”, with the ability to store notes, read emails, and access a user’s information in the cloud when a connection becomes available. Who knows? Apple may even negotiate a wireless deal with service providers that allow all its devices to connect to a Kindle WhisperNet-style “SiriNet” for free, for the purposes of communicating with the Siri servers.
Until we have ubiquitous worldwide wireless coverage, we can talk to the little Siri in our Shuffle.
There was a recent incident over the border with our friends in the north regarding internet usage and the billing thereof. Those silly Canucks thought it would be appropriate to put ridiculous data caps (50 GB? seriously?) in place to make sure their customers were doing anything cRaZy, like using the internet they paid for. No, silly person! You can’t watch streaming video on the internet or rent movies from online providers! That’s silly! You need to drive out to a video rental store and take home a physical disc so you can watch it in your deeveedee player. What’s that you say? All the video stores are shutting down because all of these super awesome streaming movie companies are putting them out of business? Pish posh. Less talking, more driving to video stores. They don’t have what you want? Just rent something anyway. Rent it. Just shut up and rent something.
Before I get too carried away, this is what I’m referring to:
Canadian cable provider Shaw hit back at mounting complaints of restrictive bandwidth caps by unveiling a new set of Internet plans with much looser caps and increased speeds.
The whole thing is ridiculous, and honestly degrading to consumers in general. There is no need to be imposing these types of restrictions on the average consumer. If there’s a problem with a few users eating up hundreds upon hundreds of gigs of data each month, then address the issue with them. Otherwise, putting data caps in place, even large ones, as listed below, is asinine.
Starting June 7, capped plans will start with at least 400GB of data per month at 50Mbps down, 3Mbps up at $59 per month for those with a Legacy TV package, moving up to 100Mbps down, 5Mbps up and 750GB of data for $79 per month.
A second phase in August will add a 250Mbps download, 15Mbps upload plan with a 1TB cap for $99.Both phases will have genuine unlimited plans. In the first phase, a 100/5 unlimited plan will be available for $119 on top of the TV plan. From August onwards, this plan will be replaced by a 250/15 version for the same price. Existing 1Mbps, 7.5Mbps, and 25Mbps plans are getting an immediate boost from 15GB, 60GB, and 100GB caps to 30GB, 125GB, and 250GB respectively.
It sounds all fine and good, right? To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever hit anywhere near that amount of data in all the time I’ve been using the internet, so I’m not complaining about the size of those limits, I’m complaining about the idea that caps need to be instituted on a large-scale basis. It’s condescending and hostile towards consumers. The article then taps into the ongoing discussion going on in the United States right now:
Internet providers in North America have regularly tried to claim that the rapid growth in online video has raised the costs of maintaining their networks and that they allegedly need to institute low caps to keep these costs check. Critics, including smaller providers and advocacy groups, have shown evidence the claims are often false since the cost of bandwidth has often gone down. They have at times accused companies like Bell and Rogers of using low caps to either delay network upgrades or to discourage competition from nimbler rivals to traditional TV, such as iTunes and Netflix.
The fact of the matter is, Internet usage is increasing, and telecommunications companies are shaking in their boots because their fat paychecks are going to start dwindling. I’m all for making money, but not when it comes at the expense of customer satisfaction. The trend here is, as I said before, hostile. No company should treat its customers like they’re harming its business. Your customers are the reason that you’re here to begin with, and don’t you dare try to justify your actions by pointing the finger at innovation and progress.
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.
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).
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:
- 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.
- Google charges you $20.00 for porting your number.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As an avid iPhone user, I have had to put up with AT&T and their relatively lousy service for about a year now. My first iPhone was jailbroken and unlocked on the T-Mobile network, and it worked really well, despite the workarounds I had to implement to get it to full functionality. The iPhone really is a wonderful device, and even the first version handled the network switch like a champ. Furthermore, T-Mobile would consistently go the extra mile and support a phone that wasn’t even exclusive to them. They were awesome.
Now that I’ve had to deal with AT&T for a year, I realize how bad their service really is. There are so many points during my travels through dense urban environments at which I lose service or drop calls that I’ve resorted to communicating almost exclusively through text messages when I’m in those situations. Data is almost impossible. I’m upset by that. I have a premium device and I’m paying premium dollars for service that is *SURPRISE* not premium.
This latest move by AT&T? Completely asinine. Apparently, AT&T hates their customers. This is purely, PURELY motivated by greed. That’s it. Their decision is made on history. HISTORY. Not innovation, imagination, or forward-thinking. History. Hey, Randall. Try driving down the street only looking in the rear-view mirror. You’re going to crash. You know why? Because you’re making stupid decisions for the FUTURE based on what’s behind you. But wait…for YOU, this is a GREAT decision, because it happens on the verge of the introduction of a brand-new device with a brand-new operating system that could allow said device to, in theory, slurp up data 24/7.
I bet you started drooling when you started imagining all the brand-new yachts you were going to buy with all that money you were going to make, you turd. This is a statement that says, “Our customer satisfaction doesn’t matter to us. We want money, plain and simple.”
Let’s do an experiment, though. Let’s assume that you’re actually making this decision based on data usage history, and that it’s better for the customer. I’m going to clarify a few things just so we’re on the same page.
People with unlimited data plans are not using that much data, and most use less than 200MB each month, right? Even people who do use a lot of data are using less than 2GB, from what I understand. So they’re not really taxing the network. They’re not. I mean…that’s basically what you’re saying, right? Just because someone has access to “unlimited” data doesn’t mean they’re using it. Again, they’re not taxing the network. So why cap the data? There’s almost no reason…unless you’re a greedy pig.
You know what I’d wager? I’d wager that Netflix and Hulu both magically release their apps to coincide with the 4.0 OS release. And I’d wager that AT&T signs a bunch of people up with capped data. I’d also bet that people start streaming the bejeezus out of Pandora and last.fm and Slacker Radio. I think they’ll start using things like Air Video twice as much, and AT&T will be laughing all the way to the bank.
AT&T knows that people are using more and more data every day, and they see that as an opportunity to hold a gun to your face and rob you blind. They WILL take advantage of people.
June 7th will be a sad day for the wireless marketplace in the US.
so i had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day regarding all this hullabaloo with google’s forays into the fiber market and how they’d like to bring superfast 1000 Mbit/s data into the home. i think that’s a great idea…but there are some shortcomings to that plan (which i’m sure google is thinking about).
even if they’re thinking about it, i’m still gonna talk about it.
so google said something recently about how it wants to make the web faster. i think that’s a great idea. now, they’ve moved beyond the theoretical “let’s try real hard to make stuff more efficient” into the “let’s just GO FAST” realm. i’m not sure if i think that’s the best way for them to be using their might.
the internet is a vast sea of stuff, right? getting access to this stuff takes bandwidth, and having all this data served up to your eyeballs and earholes is what so many telcos make their money off of. doing the same thing is what makes google a ton of money, as well. this leads them to the interesting position of having a distinct interest in making sure lots and lots and lots of data gets into your head as quickly as possible. basically every time you use the internet, you’re making google some money, so it makes sense that they’d want you to use it MOAR.
they also have the right idea in serving up data instead of creating more programs and applications. we’ve had fast computers for a while, and they keep getting faster. the problem is that they always feel slow, since the code that is being written to run on them is trying to take advantage of the new horsepower. you get more complex code, more operations occurring per second, and the overall experience doesn’t change, despite shelling out tons of cash for a new rig to browse the internet. this is really bad. we get locked into this cycle of buying new stuff, just so we can run an upgraded version of the same program we had last week, only now it does more, so it needs more power.
at what point do we hit saturation?
google says now.
really, we don’t need more powerful programs and applications, we need more data. this is important, since the applications we have now can do everything we need them to do if we can just get them the data fast enough. you can also leverage the power of supercomputing clusters around the country to take care of calculations and operations that would make your dream machine at home cry since you can pass them huge chunks of raw data and tell them “here do something with this,” and they’ll say, “ok!”
all that is so awesome! but…it’s sorta limited in the same way the current internet is sorta limited. currently, the state of the internet (true broadband) is basically limited to phone booth-style execution. you go home, or to work, or to a coffee shop, and your internet is fast in these places because they have landline connections to the ISPs. if you want mobile internet, you need to suffer through “3g” service provided by your mobile provider, or go with someone like clear or sprint for 4g. in most cases, both of these “solutions” are really stopgap measures, since they don’t provide the sort of coverage that a truly mobile solution does. sure, i could walk into a clear store and walk out with the ability to log onto my gmail from anywhere in chicago…but what if i wanted to visit some friends in wisconsin? what if i had to drive to southern illinois for work? i’d be out of luck. not truly mobile, and not truly broadband, but somewhere in between, really.
this is where google should be focusing. the current state of this data fetching is unreliable because our infrastructure lacks consistency. i may be able to get great reception when i’m at home, but i’d rather have great reception when i go to my doctor’s office on the fourth floor of a small office building. is that too much to ask? how about if i’m on the subway? at a mall?
this is where the future needs to be. it’s one thing to have a person at home, browsing at lightning fast speeds, but it’s another to be able to have a similar experience while walking down the street checking stocks or watching a movie. at some point, a person hits their limit of how much data they can absorb simultaneously. even right now, i’m not trying to load 20+ pages simultaneously. loading one or two as i think of new ideas is pretty common, but by the time i’m done typing in the query for the second page, the first has already loaded. granted, my usage may not be typical, but it’s not so far out of left field that one could call me a “power user.”
so google, if you’re listening, focus on the mobile space (like you said you would). forget fiber, give me the ability to access your pages from everywhere, and i think we’ll have a mutually beneficial relationship.