27 October 2011

Who needs a cell phone? Not me.

There are over 325 million cell phones in the United States with over a one hundred percent penetration rate.  Think about that for a moment.  You are far more likely to find someone over the age of ten with three mobiles than someone with none.  I saw a twelve year old riding a bicycle on our street and talking on a cell phone.  One friend of mine said they would be more likely to go out of the house naked than without his iPhone.  (Well, secretly I doubt he would do either.)  However, there is a cost, both monetarily and mentally, in this always-connected universe we live in.  So what if you could remain completely connected without actually carrying a cell phone?  It was possible for me and it might be for you, too.

My journey to murder my phone started a few years ago when I contemplated shutting down our cable TV bill.  It struck me that the advantages and disadvantages were remarkably similar as well as the compelling solution.  A TV subscription can set you back over a hundred bucks a month and forces you into their schedule.  What I really wanted is to watch what I want, where I want, whenever I want, and to be able to turn it all off whenever I want.  Oh, and cutting the cost dramatically would be good, too.

Streaming over the internet was our answer and thanks to the numerous options available (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, broadcast web sites) our family was able to transition without missing a single show.  (Well, there is this dance show my wife watch that we have not found yet, but otherwise that is true.)  I admit I enjoy watching sports and my ability to do so has improved thanks to ESPN streaming, MLB TV and the countless other streaming options available.  When we traveled I was still able to watch my Phillies games, stream a Netflix show or if there was no internet connection we had plenty of shows to watch on our iPad.  It was not free.  With Netflix, MLB, Amazon and Apple eating up nearly $50 a month you are still paying, but that is half what we paid for cable and we had TV on our terms.

The switch away from a cell phone was a similar experience since it cut my monthly bill in half and opened up a data connection to all of my devices.  (Including being able to stream shows while traveling.)  Still, even if you decide to keep your mobile there are valuable tools for improving your availability that I discovered.

My starting point was a Google Voice account.  (Actually, it was GrandCentral at the time, but I digress.)  Google Voice gives you a single phone number that you can program to call all of the numbers you might be available at simultaneously – home, work, cell, Skype, Gmail and nearly anywhere else.  You can schedule exactly when you are waiting at various locations so it only rings certain devices at certain times.  Google Voice has a voicemail feature that will create a text version and email / text you notification.  It also allows for you to avoid SMS text messaging charges entirely since it can intercept those bits of data and route them wherever you like, including to your phone.  And right now it is FREE!

Surprisingly, there are very few issues (I would not even call them "problems") with the service.  The text conversions of voicemails are good enough to know what the message is about but rarely perfect.  If you are in the mafia then the confidentiality of Google transcribing your latest score might be a concern.  Google Voice has also run out of phone numbers in certain areas so they will likely start charging a few bucks annually so they can free up those accounts that are not being used.  If you want to port your cell phone number to Google Voice the cost is $20.  If you want to make phone calls on the service they charge a fractions per minute so you will want a few bucks on your account in reserve.  That said, for a few bucks a year Google Voice gives you a single number to hand to anyone that will make you instantly available.  And, yes, you can even port that number you were using later if you want to.

While falling head over heels for Google Voice I was also exploring the possibility of this almost phone like device called the iPod Touch.  The original version from Apple had no microphone abilities, primarily to differentiate it from the iPhone, but as the generations have progressed the features have become almost identical.  An iPod Touch today is a very thin (better looking?) version of the iPhone that is only a cellular connection and a couple apps away from being your phone.

Without getting too geeky, the new 4G LTE network coming to nearly every cellular network is voice over IP technology (VoIP) where your phone calls are nothing but a data stream over their network.  Why not just have a data connection and use your own VoIP connection?  You can do exactly that and it works especially well if you spend a significant amount of time at locations that already have wireless (Wi-Fi) networks for you to connect on.  In fact, the only time you may need a cellular data connection is when you are on the road.

At home and at the office we have Wi-Fi connections so I already have a data connection in the locations I spend most of my time.  While I often visit sites that have free Wi-Fi (Starbucks, hotels, etc.) they are a hassle to configure each time so I have a Verizon Mi-Fi device that I use whenever I am traveling anywhere outside those primary locations.  The iPod Touch recognizes all three networks and connects automatically so all this geeky connectivity happens with no effort other than the initial setup of putting in the security key for each network the first time.

Annoyingly, the iPod Touch cannot be held up to your ear like an iPhone since there is only a video camera where the speaker should be.  While it can be used in speakerphone mode, if you want to have a confidential conversation (as much as a phone call can be) you will need to pick up headphones with a microphone built in.  Apple has a couple of nice options available for this and there are third party headphones that serve the purpose for five bucks online, though at that price using them for playing music might be painful.

Next up was to decide on the VoIP technology.  There are dozens but I want to focus on what I believe are the two best:  Skype and Talkatone.  I recommend having both in case you find one has a poor connection quality at any given time, though I have found both to be more than adequate.  When making calls to various folks no one has known that I was not on a standard cell phone and I have found the call quality in many cases to be better, even on a 3G cellular connection.  (In addition to speed, this may be part of the reason cellular networks are switching to LTE.)  The fact is that VoIP does not use a significant amount of data bandwidth so it is surprising how well it works.

Talkatone piggybacks off of your Google Voice account and your iPod Touch will ring whenever someone dials that number.  When you call out it uses Google Voice minutes so the cost is miniscule.  They do have advertising in the application however you can pay twenty dollars annually to have that removed and get support for the product.

Skype is free to use when calling other Skype users, but since you will almost always be calling telephone numbers you can expect to pay the fraction of a penny per minute cost that Google Voice charges.  Skype charges sixty bucks annually to have an incoming phone number.  That feature could be something to consider since you can add that number to your Google Voice list and whenever Skype is open on your device or computer then incoming calls will route your way.  Skype can also forward calls to Google Voice for you so you will always be available to Skype users no matter where you are.

Google Voice also has an application that allows you to make outgoing phone calls and send / receive text messages so it is well worth having on your app list.  Messages is an application included in iOS 5 that is a nice messaging application for communicating within the iOS universe, but since it is limited at the moment to Apple devices I think Google Voice is a much better choice.

FaceTime is an application built into all iOS devices that allow for video calls to one another and will work brilliantly in this data universe you are creating.  Unfortunately, since FaceTime is Apple only that limits the calling universe in the same way that Skype to Skype calls are limited, but it works well and is an option available to you.

There are potentially additional savings to be considered beyond just one cell phone bill.  My daughter needed (NEEDED, I tell you) a cell phone and instead St. Nick brought her an iPod Touch with Skype installed.  She occasionally calls friends or her Dad at the office while taking the steering wheel in a game of Gran Turismo on the PlayStation, so it satisfied her need to terrorize a virtual universe.  When we go on a road trip she can use that same Mi-Fi I have to make calls or stream a YouTube video.  Later she will want a cell phone for hanging out with friends and maybe (MAYBE) I can hand her my Mi-Fi device and she will be covered.  Maybe.

There are other hidden advantages, too.  Since you cannot hold it up to your ear you will avoid those tickets in the State of Washington for talking on the phone and driving.  You can have a conversation and still browse data at the same time (looking at you, Verizon and Sprint).  I have yet to experience a dropped call (looking at you, AT&T).  Lastly, when traveling you will have a data connection for not just your sort-of-iPhone but also for your laptop, iPad and any other Wi-Fi devices that are along for the ride.  (No more $10 hotel data charges, my friends.)  You could add a Mophie battery case and get 5 days of usability on a device the size of an iPhone.

Now, Google Voice is something I would recommend to anyone outside the mafia, but abandoning the cell phone truly separates the geeks from those that have Battlestar Galactica screen savers.  When you buy an iPhone you are connected to the world instantly, but what I describe here takes some thought and effort to reach anything close to that magical reality distortion field.  Anyone that has felt lost connecting a Wi-Fi connection at McDonalds or Starbucks will probably need to consider Google Voice and skip this “iPod Phone”.  More important than screen saver choices, if you require a solid phone connection twenty-six hours a day then this is not for you.

I recognize those fracking caveats eliminated 99% of the population.  For those of you that caught the “fracking” reference, please give it a try and let me know how you make out.