What will replace the copper land lines?

October 6, 2014 Comments off
London -  Dec 2010.

Copper or Voice over IP? 

The number of U.S. phone lines peaked at 186 million in 2000. Since then, more than 100 million copper lines have already been disconnected, and as a result, only one in every 4 American households still has a copper land line. We’re reaching the point where the phone companies are considering shutting down the plain old telephony network altogether. And they will replace it with some form of Voice over IP (VoIP) service.

Fundamentally, telephony over IP is an app running over the Internet. Because it’s an app, it runs on all sorts of platforms (cell phones, PCs, conventional phones via an adapter) and it integrates with other apps (messaging or social networking, of course, and all sorts of portals). It is immensely flexible, feature rich, and being based on the Internet, it has a very favorable cost structure.

Of course, more than 90% of the US adults have a cell phone now, but for those who still want the comfort of a land line,  there are three options.

    1. the easy way: a bundled service from the cable provider
      – the user experience is very similar to the plain old telephony,
      – typically sold with unlimited minutes (US to US),
      – but very few of the benefits of  VoIP (no PC or Smartphone app),
      – at the cost of plain old telephony – it’s very often “offered” as a promotional bundle with Cable TV and Broadband Internet, but at the end of the promotional period, the costs are sometimes as high as a copper landline  ($35 to $45 / month, with extra monthly subscription fee for blocks of minutes to Mexico, Europe, ..).
    2. the middle way: adopting packaged solutions from providers such as Vonage, ooma, Magicjack, PhonePower, VOIPO, and hundreds of others.
      – the telephony service is tied to a proprietary adapter (an ATA) that you connect to your Internet router – the subscription is tied to the adapter, that you have to buy one way or another,
      – generally sold as unlimited nationwide, or unlimited worldwide subscription,
      – easy to use,
      – most of the benefits of VoIP : soft phones are supported, it’s distance independent (once you’ve paid the monthly subscription, you can call somebody at the other end of the world) and it is location independent (you can carry your ATA with you if you travel or relocate – you keep your phone number no matter what). However,  some of those benefits (using soft phones, using the SIP protocol) often require that you pay extra.
      – because the cost of the proprietary adapter has to be recovered, you may be forced you into a 1 year or 2 year contract, with the associated early termination fees,
      – and because it’s an all you can eat subscription, it’s not that cheap if your appetite for minutes is moderate.
    3. the way of the geek – compose your own solution using a SIP telephony service provider (Anveo, Callcentric, Flowroute, VOIP.MS and dozens of other…)
      SIP is the Internet signaling protocol widely used to control telephony over IP services. Cable providers and packaged solutions providers also use SIP under the covers, but they consider it too complex and too powerful for the normal end users, and they hide it from you.
      – with SIP, you integrate your own service (you pick one or many SIP providers, you chose your own adapter (the ATA), your own softphone, and you compose your own service plan
      – the flexibility is limitless: you can create your own virtual PBX, you can establish your own rules for the treatment of incoming calls, you can elaborate complex call redirection rules if you’re travelling or if you have a geographically dispersed family,
      – the cost is low (a few $US per month to get the service, and a fraction of a cent per minute) and totally under your control. Calls to the other SIP users never have to touch the plain old telephony network and are totally free,
      – of course, there’s a catch: it’s not rocket science, but you have to be interested in the technology, and you have to be ready to spend some time exploring a few technical forums at the beginning. But when it’s in place, it simply works.

For reference: Telephone companies are abandoning copper phone lines

Categories: How to, Telephony Tags: , ,

An iPhone, a Wifi router and a VoIP subscription: how to get good quality sound in audio-conferences even from the other end of the world

September 21, 2014 Comments off

albenc-0719Is it just me? I spend hours every day in conference calls – and over the last few years, I have noticed a constant decline of the sound quality, to the point where it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the other participants have to say.

I don’t think the providers of the audio-conference services are particularly to blame. It’s just that the participants increasingly use mobile phones, not only from their moving cars or from the halls of airports, but also when they are sitting at their desk in their home office. And let’s face it, the sound quality is often bad. Really bad.

Last month, I had to work for a whole week from a remote area in the mountains of France, where the rest of the family was on vacation. Cell phone coverage was miserable (you had to stand in the middle of the back-yard to simply be able to receive calls). But there was a good broadband connection (not super fast but very reliable) and I was able to work, without inflicting to my remote colleagues the torture of a highly distorted speech.

Here’s what I did:

  • I configured a WiFi router (I always have a small TP-Link router with me when I travel, just in case)
  • I used my iPhone with very basic  GE mono headsets, and a VoIP client from Bria, with the optional G.729a CODEC. (I also used Acrobits Groundwire with an equivalent G.729 CODEC, the results where more or less the same – Bria might be marginally easier to use, that’s all).
  • I configured the VoIP client for my VoIP subscription from CallCentric (I don’t use the VoIP services bundled with the cable service – I get my own VoIP service at a fraction of the cost and with a much greater flexibility). And Callcentric supports the G.729A protocol.

In my experience, installing the optional G.729a CODEC in Bria or Acrobits makes all the difference. The CODEC requires very little bandwidth: voice is encoded at 8kbps and the actual bandwidth consumption is approximatively 31.2 kbps. It is much lower than what the default protocol – G.711 – requires (87 kbps actual bandwidth usage), and more in line with the performance of the upstream link of typical broadband circuits.

The quality was good, so good in fact that some of my colleagues were refusing to believe that I was working from a cottage in the mountains with a simple iPhone: they thought I was in the corporate office, using a conventional conference phone.

And of course, VoIP charges being distance independent, it did not cost me more than what I would have paid in the US.

Mobile VoIP – Back to reality

January 20, 2013 5 comments

From the movie Reality Bites

From the movie Reality Bites

Reality Bites. That’s the title of a good movie from the mid nineties, starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, about young fellows learning to cope with the harsh realities of life.

After a few months trying different Mobile VoIP client apps and VoIP service providers, I reached an approaching state of mind: the reality of Mobile VoIP is not pretty, primarily because the 3G data networks of the wireless carriers can not be relied upon to support critical voice applications.

VoIP solutions work fine on non congested WiFi networks

In order to be acceptable, a true Mobile VoIP service should have at least the same level of performance as a conventional GSM service: you should be reachable anywhere and reliably, you should be able to place calls when you feel like it or need it, and once engaged in a conversation, you should not loose the connection or have to drop because of a poor call quality.

Practically, the requirements are met in controlled environments: at home or in the office, on non-congested WiFi networks. With some caveats, the two VoIP clients and the two VoIP service providers I tested provide a solution whose quality is good enough: your correspondents reach you, and supposing the Wireless LAN is not congested, the quality of service will be good enough.

In any case, my recommendation would be to buy an optional G729 Codec from the vendor of the VoIP app, in order to limit the bandwidth requirements to a bare minimum.

Wireless data networks are not reliable enough for voice applications

Unfortunately, as soon as you leave home or the office, you have to rely on the data network of your favorite carrier, and that’s where the problems start.

The coverage of data networks is not as good as the coverage of the good old GSM or CDMA networks, and it’s very likely that you will miss a few calls a day, or that you will not be able to place a call when you absolutely need it, for lack of a good enough data connection. To me it’s simply not acceptable, and it disqualifies mobile VoIP as a primary mobile telephony solution.

There are different ways to implement Mobile VoIP (with UDP or TCP call control, with or without a third party notification gateway that wakes up the smartphone when a call is being received), so it’s difficult to formulate a definitive opinion about battery life. In some cases, I had to recharge my phone every few hours.

While traveling abroad, VoIP over WiFi networks is a nice way to call people back home, but VoIP over wireless data connections is not a practical option: if you stay with your US carrier, data roaming is horrendously expensive, and if you take a local data subscription from a local wireless carrier, you could be up for some serious configuration work (various gateways), without any guarantee that the local carrier’s data network is capable of supporting voice.

A much better option is to subscribe to a local GSM Voice service (and get a local phone number), and let your VoIP service provider redirect your incoming calls to your local mobile number over its own IP network (for a few Cents per minute).

The VoIP Apps (running Bria or Acrobits on a smartphone)

Bria softphone -iPhone edition - the main screen

Bria softphone -iPhone edition – the main screen

I tested two softphone apps for iOS, Acrobit’s Groundwire and Counterpath’s Bria. There are other VoIP clients on the marketplace, but some of them come with some unpleasant strings attached.

Acrobit’s Groundwire and Counterpath’s Bria are two mature VoIP apps, recommended or supported by the major VoIP service providers, with relatively little to differentiate them.The development teams update their application and extend their feature set very regularly, and what looks like an advantage of one product today might disappear in a few weeks or a few months as the other product catches up.

Counterpath, the developer of Bria, is a well known Canadian vendor of softphones and VoIP gateways, and they have versions of their VoIP clients for iOS, Android, as well as Windows and Mac OS X.

Acrobits is a smaller company, based in Europe, and at the moment, their softphone application is only available for the iOS and Android platform.

Technically, both products work very well. Acrobit’s Groundwire has a few advantages over Bria. Or it had last time I checked. There are more configuration options for the technology savvy, but some features work better with Bria: for instance, you can reliably enter DTMF codes to navigate IVRs, ASRs and other automated systems (I could never make it work with Groundwire).

Very interestingly, Groundwire also offers a gateway service that relays SIP calls received over UDP to Apple’s push notification system. (more about the different technical ways to implement VoIP on an iPhone at : Tech and Simple – A working Mobile VoIP solution for the iPhone – Acrobits Groundwire and Flowroute).

Bria Softphone application for iPhone - 75 VoIP providers pre-configured

The Bria app – 75 VoIP providers are pre-configured

On the other hand, Bria’s user interface is a bit simpler and marginally more user friendly than Groundwire’s.

The price of the two apps is in the same ballpark (less than $10), and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

CallCentric and Flowroute

CallCentric and Flowroute have a very different approach. CallCentrix has a large catalog of services (they can provide you local phone numbers almost anywhere in the world), and their customer service is first class. But they’re not the cheapest, and stick to tried and tested solutions.
Flowroute, on the other hand, has a much smaller catalog, but is cheaper and has developed a standard solution well suited to mobile VoIP (they support G729 codecs and TCP natively). As an “amateur technologist” (I’m not a telecom engineer by any means), I struggled a bit with the configuration pages of Flowroute’s Web site.

One last word

All the carriers are currently deploying LTE networks (aka 4G networks). LTE networks are data only networks, and they don’t offer any mechanism to transport voice conversations using conventional multiplexing technologies such as CDMA and GSM. That’s why most of the LTE capable smartphones sold by Verizon and Sprint have two radios (one for CDMA, one for LTE), and that’s why the iPhone 5, with only one radio, can not support simultaneous voice and data connections on their networks.*

The long term plan of the carriers is to shut down their old multiplexed voice networks, and to transport packetized voice as any other data payload on their new LTE networks. Metro PCS will be the first one to deploy VoIP over LTE (at the end of 2013, or so they say).

Considering the coverage and battery life issues I experienced when trying to use the current 3G data networks to transport voice, I’m not sure I would rush to be an early adopter.

* ATT’s implementation of its 3G network is different from Verizon’s or Sprint’s, and the same 3G connection can support conventional voice and data simultaneously. But like any other LTE network, ATT’s 4G network only supports data connections. It explains why an ATT LTE iPhone (with only one radio, as we have seen), falls back to 3G for data and for voice as soon as the user wants to talk and surf at the same time.

a good summary of this blog entry

a good summary of this blog entry

A working Mobile VoIP solution for the iPhone – Acrobits Groundwire and Flowroute

October 8, 2012 9 comments

A few weeks ago, as I was reaching the end of my two year ATT contract, I started wondering whether I should buy a new smartphone and sign for two more years of big carrier abuse, or explore alternatives. I considered MVNOs, tested IP messaging solutions such as Viber or Skype, and finally decided to go one step further and build my own mobile voice over IP (VoIP) solution.

Acrobits Groundwire - the keypad

Acrobits Groundwire – the keypad

A mobile VoiP solution requires three components: a mobile carrier providing the 3G data service, a Voice over IP service provider playing the role of a gateway between the public telephony network and the world of IP communications, and an application (“a client”) on the iPhone. At first glance, a VoIP app looks like the iPhone “Phone” app, but is using the SIP protocol to manage the connection to the VoIP provider (that’s why we will call the application a “SIP client”, and why VoIP service providers are often called “SIP Poviders”).

After testing various VoIP service providers and iPhone SIP clients, I’ve finally identified the combination that works best for me. It does not mean it would work for everybody, though, or that I would trust it if my life (or a job, or anything important) depended on it. I still have my reservations about the practicality and the reliability of the solution. But it brings the flexibility of VoIP to mobile phones at a very low cost, in particular when calling or traveling abroad.

The cost of a mobile VoIP solution

A consequence of the increased use of Text Messages and IP messaging applications, conventional voice traffic is reported to have decreased, and mobile  carriers  now have excess capacity on their conventional (GSM or CDMA) voice networks. That’s why they’re now proposing unlimited voice plans. On the other hand, data bandwidth is still a “hot” commodity, and they’re trying to sell it at a premium. So, does it make sense to switch to VoIP?

As discussed earlier, there are 3 components in a mobile VoIP solution:

– the Data Plan (such as ATT’s for the iPad):  3GB/Month: $30.00. VoIP does not need much bandwidth: with a G729 Codec, approx. 70 MB per hour. And the data plan will only be used when a WiFi connection is not available.

– a Voice over IP service from a provider such as Flowroute.com:  $0.012 /min or $6.95 /month (unlimited) to receive calls, approx $0.01 /min for outbound calls in the US. Minutes to foreign countries are more expensive, but still 10 to 50 times cheaper than with a conventional voice plan. Add $1.39 /month for a DID number.

–  a SIP client (a one time cost) : Acrobits Groundwire application: $9.99 on the Apple App Store; G729A CODEC available as an in-app purchase ($9.99)

If you consider that you will need a data plan in any case, the real cost of the VoIP solution is the cost of the minutes. 900 minutes of voice (to or from the US) will cost approximately $10. Plus the DID number.  Total: $12 per month.

The nitty-gritty details

Settings of Acrobits - how the iPhone receives incoming calls

Acrobits Groundwire – The different options proposed for managing incoming calls. With a VoIP provider using TCP, “background always” is the best option

For the software engineers working on SIP clients, smartphones present a few extra difficulties: in order to preserve the battery, the SIP application has to be placed in a dormant state when no phone conversation is going on, leaving the responsibility of staying in touch with the VoIP service provider to a keep-alive mechanism managed by the operating system.

Because of the way Apple has implemented multitasking in iOS, only TCP keep-alives can be managed transparently by the operating system, and only TCP flows can wake up an application in a dormant state. Unfortunately, most VoIP providers only work with UDP.

It leaves the software engineers with 3 options:

1 – use UDP, prevent the application from hibernating, and manage the keep-alive in the app itself – which impacts battery life and is not endorsed by Apple,

2 – implement a proxy server somewhere in the cloud, which receives the call in UDP, connects to Apple’s notification system to wake up the phone, and finally converts the UDP flow into a TCP flow that can be forwarded to the iPhone. The whole process is convoluted, and raises all sorts of concerns regarding reliability and security.

3 – or ask the end user to find a VoIP provider using TCP.

I tested the 3 options, and came to the conclusion that configuring the SIP client to receive TCP calls directly from the VoIP Service provider yielded the best results.

Acrobits and Flowroute over TCP

When receiving a call, the iPhone is waken up almost instantaneously, and the Acrobits Groundwire app  is promoted to the foreground in a few seconds. The reactivity of the direct TCP connection – while not as good as what you would experience with a conventional voice call – is much higher than what proxy based solutions deliver, and does not require a total reeducation of the end users – at both ends of the line. And the impact on the battery life remains limited, at least with WiFi connections.

Acrobits Groundwire - the call is established

Acrobits Groundwire – the call is established

Flowroute, the service provider I selected, supports VoIP over TCP. It also has the advantage of supporting G729 (the efficient voice compression mechanism used in the GSM standard). Groundwire, the SIP client from Acrobits, proved very configurable, reliable,  and easy to use at the same time.

In my opinion, the G729 Codec is a must: VoIP does not need a lot of bandwidth, but it needs it consistently. We’re using public networks (WiFi hot spots, the Internet) which do not “protect” the VoIP traffic. The smaller the bandwidth required (G729 only requires 10 kbps), the better the chances for the call to go through with an acceptable quality.

I did not notice that enabling VoiP had any visible impact on my data usage, but the autonomy of the phone suffered.  Even with the optimized TCP solution. The impact on battery life remains very acceptable as long as the phone can connect to the Internet over WiFi, but if you are on the move with only 3G data available, the autonomy shrinks dramatically (down to a few hours).

Before I settled on Flowroute and Acrobits, I used Bria, from Counterpath, with Callcentric, a provider delivering the calls on UDP. Because iOS does not permit a UDP flow to wake up a dormant application, Bria had to stay awake in the background, which impacted the battery life significantly. It worked until I upgraded my phone to iOS 6. iOS 6 seems to manage UDP flows differently, breaking Bria’s ability to reliably receive calls over UDP. On their support forum, Counterpath blame a bug in iOS 6, and promise a work around on their next release.

Even if the SIP client application is well designed, it can not totally hide that the iPhone was not designed for VoIP. Its firmware and its OS expect voice conversations to use the GSM network: accepting a VoIP call requires at least one more step (unlock the home screen) than accepting a GSM call, and if you receive a conventional phone call over GSM while already engaged in a VoIP conversation, GSM will take precedence and will terminate the VoIP conversation.

A conclusion

Acrobits Groundwire - the locked home screen when a call is received

Acrobits Groundwire – the message on the home screen alerts about the incoming call. The user will have to enter the unlock password to take the call.

Mobile VoiP? If you stay in your home country and never travel abroad or place call to family or friends overseas, I’m not sure it makes economical sense. VoIP minutes are cheap, but the cost of conventional voice minutes is going down rapidly (with an MVNO, you can get unlimited voice and text for $40.00 /month). If you travel to foreign countries, or place long calls overseas, VoIP is much more interesting. The minutes stay at the same price no matter where you are. But you have to live with the hassle of buying local 3G SIM cards and fiddling with APN settings.

I have my reservations regarding the reliability of the whole solution. Ultimately VoIP is dependent on the availability of 3G data networks (which are less prevalent than GSM or CDMA networks), and can be complex to set up (configuring a new 3G data carrier requires a change of the APN parameters in the “settings” application of the iPhone).

On a smartphone, a SIP client is just a third party app like any other third party app, which creates all sorts of issues (did you relaunch the app after you restarted the phone, has the application frozen in the background?).

Until a manufacturer decides to bring Mobile VoIp to the mainstream and designs an IP-only smartphone specifically for VoIP applications, it will remain a complex solution that can be broken by an operating system upgrade.

Mobile Telephony over IP: Facetime, Viber, Skype and other proprietary solutions

September 25, 2012 1 comment

The iPhone 5 is a nice piece of hardware, but getting it means signing for two more years with one of the three big carriers, and I was wondering last week whether it was time to experiment with mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) or with Voice over IP.

Voice over IP cartoon

Voice over IP is not a bandwidth hog. But it’s very sensitive to latency and jitter, and in the absence of QoS, VOIP tends to expose the weaknesses of under provisioned networks.

The idea behind VoIP or Internet Telephony is pretty simple: it’s about using an IP network (a network, public or private, which uses the same packet transport protocols as the Internet) to support a voice conversation. If you’re using services like Skype, Webex, FaceTime, Viber or if you’re getting your dial tone from your cable company, you’re using VoIP.

Practically, building an Internet Telephony solution is far from trivial, and adding the constraints of mobility to an already complex technical problem only makes the matter worse.

Even if there are established standards and hundreds of VoIP service providers and software vendors offering a piece of an overall Mobile VoIP solution, it’s often much simpler for the man in the street to use a packaged solution such as Viber or Skype rather than try to engineer its own Internet Telephony solution.

In this article, I will focus on the particular case of the iPhone, but most of the products exist or have equivalents in the Android world.

At a high level, there are three categories of VoIP solutions for the iPhone:
– proprietary mobile voice and video messaging solution with no access to the public telephony network
– proprietary mobile voice and video messaging solution interconnected with the public telephony network
– standards based Internet Telephony solution interconnected with the public telephony network

Apple’s own FaceTime or Viber offer free voice and video messaging capabilities over IP networks (through WiFi or through a 3G or 4G data plan), and they work pretty well. Facetime and Viber are closed systems (you can only establish a conversation with another Facetime or Viber user), and they are not interconnected to the public telephony network: only the user of an Apple iOS device will be able to reach you on Facetime, and only a Viber user (there are clients for Android and other platforms) will be able to contact you on Viber. Facetime or Viber don’t give you a phone number, which makes you out of reach of billions of conventional or mobile phones, and you can not call your dentist to ask for an appointment.

viber home page

viber.com – the home page – Viber has clients for iOS, Android, Wimdows Phone, Bada, Symbian and Blackberry.

Because their scope is rather limited, solutions like Viber are very easy to use, and produce good results – as long as your Internet connection (WiFi or 3G) is of sufficient quality. And they’re 100% free.

Skype is somehow similar to Facetime or Viber: it’s a proprietary solution, but it supports a much larger set of “clients”: not only the usual mobile phone platforms, but also Windows and Linux PCs and Macs. Skype also offers dedicated cordless phones, as well as adapters where you can connect a conventional home phone (wired or wireless), a solution very similar to Obihai’s OBI 100 when you couple it with Google Voice.

Lastly, you can call conventional phones and mobile phones (you just have to buy a bucket of minutes), and you can even tie your Skype account to a phone number (here or abroad). Skype’s online number is not free ($6 /month), but Skype being considered a messaging service, you don’t have access to e911 services and are not subject to the corresponding monthly fees.

All in all, Skype provides a comprehensive consumer oriented IP Telephony solution in everything but the name. With more than 600 million registered users, it commands a 13% market share for international communications worldwide. It’s proprietary – you have to use their client applications to use their network – and some security experts and IT departments don’t like its architecture (Skype is at least partially a peer to peer system), but it works and is far easier to deploy than equivalent standards based solutions.

Skype - online number

Skype.com Web site. The Online Number is a way to tie a Skype account to a phone number. It opens the door to the use of Skype as a substitute to a conventional voice plan (you would need a 3G subscription, though).

In theory, it’s possible to use Skype on a smartphone as a substitute for a voice plan (subscribe to a Skype Online Number and attach it to the Skype account you use on the iPhone) . People like Jason Belsey have tried it and are happy with the experience.

I’m not sold on the Skype idea however.
Generally speaking, when you receive a VoIP call on the iPhone, the user experience is not that great, no matter how good the VoIP client is. The iPhone operating system is designed to give priority to conventional cell phone calls and to maximize battery life. It does not offer an easy way for VoIP applications developers to keep the iPhone in touch with the back-end VoIP servers and to rapidly wake it up. To make the matter worse, once the phone has been located on the network and has been waken up, the user still has to enter his/her password to unlock the home screen, and wait a few seconds for the VoIP app to be promoted to the foreground and let him/her accept the call and start talking.

With Skype, the initial call establishment (finding your phone on the network and waking the iPhone up) seems to take longer (15 sec. or more) than with other VoIP solutions. It’s also the case for the time the application takes to come to the foreground. If you add the few seconds needed for the user to unlock the phone, many impatient callers will have abandoned the call.

Last but not least, the upgrade to iOS 6 seems to have created some issues – at least for some users. I don’t think the issue is specific to Skype, though. I also experimented issues with Counterpath’s Bria (a VoIP client) as have many other people.

Regression testing

VoIP apps are very sensitive to changes in the Apple operating system (iOS). If you count on your VoIP service to remain reachable, don’t install new versions of the OS or the app before checking the forums.

Viber or Skype are not applications written and published by Apple. When a new version of the OS of the iPhone is released, some of the tweaks and hacks used by the independent developers of VoIP and messaging applications may start producing different results, and as a consequence the application could start behaving erratically. If you really count on VoIP to remain reachable at all times, you must adhere to a strict change control process: when Apple or the application vendor release a new version of iOS or of the app, always wait for a few weeks, then check the forums for issues and incompatibilities, and only install if everything seems OK.

The last option is to build our own mobile VoIP solution, by combining the best standards based IP telephony service provider with the best standards based IP telephony client. It will not make the issues and limitations of VoIP on a smartphone go away, but it will give us a chance to pick the vendors who have been the most successful in minimizing the consequences of those limitations. A sort of best of breed approach. More about in the next post.

Instead of buying a new iPhone, why not leave the big carriers and try something different?

September 23, 2012 2 comments
The ultimate fanboy

The ultimate fanboy. I could not find the credits for this picture. I believe that this gentleman was one of the founders of “The iPhone Blog” back in 2007

The iPhone 5 was launched last week end. But I’m not sure I’m going to buy one. At least not immediately. Apple’s Opus#5 is beautiful, light and fast, but my iPhone 4 does not look ugly, and is light enough and fast enough to my taste. Like millions of iPhone 4 early adopters, I’ve just been freed of my 2 year contractual obligations to ATT. They even unlocked it. So I’m trying to think out of the box.

Why commit to two more years of endured servitude to one of the big carriers? And if I keep my current iPhone, why should I pay the same amount as before, now that ATT has more than fully recovered the cost of the initial subsidy? Why not take advantage of my freedom and try something different. Like MVNOs or VoIP.

MVNOs are Mobile Virtual Network Operators – they don’t own a network of cell towers – they just buy blocks of minutes wholesale from the big carriers (Sprint, ATT and T-Mobile) and package them in pre-paid or pay-as-you-go plans for retail consumers. Some MVNOs (such as Virgin or Boost) are direct emanations of the big carriers (Sprint, in this case), others are targeting specific “niches” or minorities and often belong to foreign carriers with no technical footprint in the US.

For iPhone 4 users, there are not many options when it comes to MVNOs. Very few permit you to bring your own device: the MVNOs using the Sprint network will refuse to configure your CDMA iPhone on their network, and will ask you to buy a new iPhone at full price from their own on-line store instead. The MVNOs using GSM networks are more flexible, but many use the network of T-Mobile, whose 3G frequencies are currently incompatible with the iPhone. In fact, you have to pick a virtual operator using ATT’s network. There are a few of them, but they are not equal: some have an awful reputation (horrendous customer service, zero tolerance for data overage). Red Pocket is one of the good ones, according to the feed back collected on multiple forums.

For an iPhone user, only Red Pocket’s top of line plan makes sense, because it’s the only one which includes a serious data allocation (1 GB). Compared to ATT’s unlimited plans, Red Pocket is relatively cheap – $55.00 / mo for unlimited voice and text and 1GB of data, but it comes with its own set of constraints and limitations: it’s a pre-paid plan (you have to buy refills every 30 days), there is no subsidized phone (you have to bring your own), it does not support Visual Voice Mail (you just have the plain voice mail we all used before June 2007) and it does not offer any form of international roaming.

Another fancy feature, MMS, requires some serious configuration. Lastly, the plan is caped at 1GB/month, with no way to get more. Red Pocket does not have the reputation of being too brutal if you reach the limit your allocation (they don’t cancel your subscription), but a cap is a cap nonetheless. An equivalent post-paid plan with ATT (unlimited voice and text, and 3GB of data) would cost $120.00 / month plus almost $7.00 in various surcharges and fees. That’s a huge difference – assuming you really need unlimited voice and text messages.

ATT screen copy

Do you really need 1400 minutes in your voice plan?

If you are often in places where WiFi connectivity is available, if you and your usual contacts use Apple’s Messages application, you may not need your carrier’s text messages service at all, and with Apple’s FacetimeSkype or Viber you could call your friends using your data allocation and live with a much smaller bucket of voice minutes. An ATT plan with 450 minutes, no text messages and 3GB of data will cost you $70.00 /month plus fees and surcharges, not a big difference after you’ve factored in all the limitations of Red Pocket and its competitors.

Your winning savings strategy could be to stay with your current carrier, but to examine your usage patterns and reduce your monthly voice and text allocation accordingly.

Much more radical is the VoIP or Mobile IP Telephony solution. The migration of telephony from TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) to TCP/IP has been going on in the Enterprise world for more than 15 years, and is in full swing in the residential market. There have been reports of people only using a 3G data subscription and a Voice over IP application on their smartphone, but it’s far from mainstream. On paper, it looks great. You get the flexibility of IP Telephony, for only $30.00 a month (the cost of a 3G data-only SIM card for an iPad, that you will insert in an iPhone). But telephony and VoIP seem to attract fanatics, who are so enamored with the technology that they are not totally objective. I wanted to see by myself how practical mobile VoIP was in September 2012. You will read my conclusions my next blog entry.

– GigaOM
Why are MVNOs so hot right now? Thank the carriers
Is there any reason not to get a prepaid phone [or plan]?

Plazza San Marco, Venice

Plazza San Marco, Venice – Dec. 2011 – One of the few places in the city where public Wifi is available. We used Viber over WiFi to call home.

Disruption – how smartphones and Facebook are hurting HP’s printer business

May 30, 2012 Comments off

Internet, Smartphones, Web 2.0, we live in times of disruption. Disruption is one of today’s most used buzzwords in technology, and blogger-analysts like Horace Dediu have found a way to make a living popularizing the concept, and measuring the unexpected consequences of the introduction of new technologies on established businesses. I will not paraphrase him. Read his columns to learn more.

Another recent example of disruption: one of HP’s cash cows until recently was its printing business, but it’s now shrinking rapidly (by 10% year over year according to HP’s CEO, Meg Witman). There has never been much money to make manufacturing inkjet printers for the consumer market, but once they had bought the printer, consumers printed photos, and they had to purchase proprietary and very expensive ink jet cartridges pretty frequently to keep on doing so. And that’s where HP’s profits were coming from, of course.

Interestingly, picture printing at home was disruptive in its hey day (it drove the traditional minilabs and photo finishers to extinction) but it was based on a trifecta – digital camera, home PC, inkjet printer which required a relatively large initial investment and a significant effort from the consumer. It was an indirect and imperfect answer to the underlying request of the customer “give me a cheap and effortless way to show and share pictures with my family and friends”.

The latest generation smartphones with their 8 Mega Pixel imaging modules and their high resolution displays are good enough to take casual pictures and to show them to the people around you in most of the situations, and coupled with Web 2.0 sites like Facebook or Instagram, they provide a much cheaper and almost effortless way to share photos with relatives or friends, wherever they are in the world.

Venice – Plazza San Marco – Shot with an iPhone 4. The picture was shown and shared, but to the best of my knowledge, it was never printed.

It is very telling that iOS or Android have not really addressed the issue of printing so far – the solutions they’re proposing are convoluted at best, but that it does not seem to have impacted their adoption rate so far.

HP’s worries with its printing and imaging business are not caused entirely by smartphones and Facebook. There are many other reasons, as explained by Dean Takahashi in Venturebeat.com. Tablets like the iPad, in combination with apps like Goodreader and with services like Dropbox, could also seriously impact HP’s office laser printing business, in environments where people have to work and collaborate on large documents. More about Goodreader’s disruptive power in a next post.

Goodreader – print copy of a demo: how PDF documents can be annotated.

Would you rather text than drive, or why Google is spending money on self-driven cars

May 27, 2012 1 comment

If you buy a phone from AT&T, it comes with this sticker:

But is it sincere – At&t are still making a lot of money from text messages – and has it any chance of changing the behavior of the texting-drivers?

I doubt it.

In fact, I’m afraid that most people aren’t that interested in driving anymore. They would rather be texting, updating their status on Facebook, pining pictures on Pinterest, or even watching ad sponsored shows. Anything but watching the road and being focused on driving.

For them, self driven cars would be a god-send. The convenience of individual transportation, without the pain of actually driving a car.

For Google also, self-driven cars make a lot of sense. Google make 90% of their money serving ads to the users of their Internet services. So far, from their point of view, the hours that people spend driving their cars and not watching their on-line ads are a lost opportunity. Freeing the drivers from the chore of actually driving their cars would immediately translate into more eyeballs for advertisers, and more revenue for them.

For a car nut like me, that’s too bad. It means that 5 years from now, driving may be more like this (left) than that (right).

The dashboard of an early prototype of Google’s self driven car

Porsche 911 (1968)
Driving in its purest form.
From http://www.thegentlemanstopcoat.com

And maybe ten years from now, windshields will become obsolete, replaced by some new form of wide screen Google TV. Paid for by the ads.

For those who love cars, check this review of a magnificent Porsche 911 (1968) at DRIVEN.urbandaddy.com.

More about the Pantech Breeze III – fixing issues with the PC Suite on Windows 7

May 22, 2012 4 comments

Pantech Breeze III (AT&T).

In another post, “where have the feature phones gone”, I briefly presented Pantech’s Breeze III, the feature phone sold by AT&T to its Enterprise customers. It’s not sexy but it works – and if you’re looking for a really cheap GSM feature phone you don’t have much choice anyway. It comes with a very conventional Windows only application whose primary purpose is to let you synchronize the contacts list and JPG files between the phone and your PC.

There are three issues worth noting with the PC Suite:

  • Even if the installation wizard lets you install the PC Suite on a Windows 7 (64 bit) system, one of the drivers will not be accepted by Windows and the connection to the phone will never be established. The solution is pretty simple, once you find the answer in the forums: the most important driver of the PC Suite drivers only works on 32 bit systems, and some tweaking is necessary. Pantech’s message first:

    Configuring the Pantech PC Suite for Windows 7 (64 bit)

    “Unfortunately the reason why this is not working is because this software is not fully supported on the ‘Windows 7 OS’ which also goes for ‘64-Bit OS’. This is the reason why you are having this issue with your PC Suite software recognizing your phone on your PC.”

    A contributor named MobileKing on a RadioShack forum proposed this solution which worked for me, and also solved the problem for other people, apparently.
    “You might still be able to get it to work though, try these steps:
    – Right-click on the PC Suite icon, and click on Properties.
    – On the new window that opens, click on the Compatibility tab.
    – Click on “Run this program in compatibility mode for:” and select your version of Windows.
    Make sure the checkbox for “Run this program in compatibility mode for:” is checked. Also make sure to check the “Run as Administrator” box, then click on “Apply” and “OK”.” 

    Thank you Mobile King.

  • The “move to idle screen” message: when the PC Suite finally works, you try and copy a selection of your Outlook contacts into the Breeze. And it fails. You only get a cryptic message “move to idle screen” on your PC. The user manual and the help files don’t give any explanation. Once again I finally found the answer in the user forums (this time AT&T’s, thanks to a Donaldle). It simply means that “the display screen of your phone should have the time clock and the background picture” (in other words, leave the “contacts” sub menu of the phone and go back to the main screen).

    Thank you Donaldle.

  • Lastly, the phone crashes if you ask it to copy too many contacts in one go.
    Do it by batches of 30 contacts and it will work.

    Those issues are not a big deal for an IT person who can find his or her way in the forums of phone users. I doubt the target audience of this phone – people who want simplified menus and a pill reminder – would be willing to go through such a hassle.

    Pantech’s Pill Reminder Application (Pantech Breeze III) – Source: http://www.phonearena.com

  • Where have the feature phones gone?

    May 17, 2012 Comments off

    Lucky Luke – a very famous comic book character in Europe.

    Carrying two smartphones all the time? I had enough

    I work for a company operating in a regulated industry. Even if I never touch the data of our customers, there is a very remote risk that I enter in contact with protected information and inadvertantly make it public.

    All sorts of rules and restrictions have been edicted by the company to reduce the risks and its potential liability. We’re not permitted to connect our personal smartphones to the corporate Exchange server. And we’re not supposed to configure a personal email account on the company’s smart phone either.

    Therefore, people like me have been carrying two smartphones for years. The company’s Blackberry, for company business, and an iPhone , for private activities. One on the left hip, one on the right one. Like a cow-boy ready for a gun fight.

    The lust for a feature phone

    Since I don’t travel that much anymore (thanks to the proliferation of audio or video conferences, and to budget restrictions) I’ve become more of a corridor warrior than a road warrior. I decided to retire my 5 year old Blackberry, and replace it with two devices: a company owned iPad (connected to Exchange and Sharepoint), and a company owned feature phone.

    Pantech Breeze III

    The feature phone of my dreams had to be as small and light as possible – to fit in trousers’ pockets, it had to support Bluetooth, and it had to let me import my most useful professional contacts from Outlook. That was it.

    I was in for a shock. The 3 main US carriers don’t really propose feature phones anymore. They limit their offering to one or two very basic phones, and they hide them in the darkest corners of their online stores. I did my due diligence, and picked AT&T’s Pantech Breeze III, not for its intrinsic qualities, but simply because it was a GSM phone. The line of thought being that if the phone was too bad, I could always put the SIM in something a bit better.

    AT&T’s Pantech Breeze III (full list of characteristics on GSM Arena) is a flip phone with a shiny plasticky grey shell, which shouts “cheap stuff”. It has large and very visible keys, simplified menus, and a unique “Pill Reminder” feature. You clearly see which age class is targeted.

    Did it meet my requirements? Not quite. It’s not exactly small (3.90 (H) x 2.02 (W) x 0.74 (D)) or light (3.6 oz.) – some Sony Android phones are smaller and lighter). It is Bluetooth compatible. And it ships with a Windows only (sorry, no Mac for you) PC Suite for address book synchronization.

    The Pantech PC Suite is a mixed bag. Once installed, it works relatively well. Installation is a challenge, though. The PC Suite is not directly compatible with Windows 7 64 bit. I had to explore the forums (the documentation and the support FAQ provided by AT&T and Pantech are useless at best),  until I found out that it was in fact a 32 bit app and that I had to configure it in the Windows 7 32 bit compatibility mode.

    Sony Ericsson w910 – one of last great feature phones (source: cnet.co.uk)

    Do I use the Breeze? No. Not that it does not work. But it’s just a bit too bulky, and far too ugly.

    After looking at a few exotic options (made in China by unknown Chinese brands) and at one of the products of a company named Blu, I simply bought an old Sony-Ericsson from 2006 on eBay for a few peanuts.

    The W910 is  really small, really light, it receives and sends new contact cards over Bluetooth, and it can import songs and playlists directly from iTunes (on a Mac). Sony never updated its PC Suite – it is not Windows 7 compatible – or it involves some wizardy I’m not familiar with, but battery life is incredible (compared to a smartphone), it’s cute, and all in all, it meets my requirements.

    Why don’t they make very small and sexy feature phones anymore?

    The obvious answer – because the market, if it exists, is not large enough. People want smartphones, and large ones at that.

    Arkon’s tablet handgrip for the iPad (source: arkon).
    The handgrip was designed for people using the iPad as a data entry tool in warehousing applications. But smartphones grow regularly in size, so be prepared.

    Only laggards who can’t cope with the technology look for feature phones. But maybe in 12 months, when 75% of the subscribers will be tired of carrying their almost-a-tablet 5in smart phones, a brilliant product manager will decide that the times are ready for something really small and simple. An iPhone Nano of sorts.