Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Telephones over the internet

I get requests for suggestions on technical topics. A client was wanting to dump her home phoneline from the old-time provider. Here are some ideas of what she can do. The premise is that she has reliable and cost-effective cell service.

As you know, there are dozens of options to connect broadband internet and phones. If you want to ditch the phone company, here are some services I use and recommend.

Google Voice (http://voice.google.com/).
They give you a number and you can direct that number to ring one or more of your registered phones. You can apply rules including time-of-day filtering such as family goes to Sis, business to Mom, friends can be screened before picking up, unknown callers go to voicemail, etc. Receive voicemail as an email attachment or transcribed to txt. Documentation is Google-sparse.
Basic service free but lots of penny and nickel features available. No computer needed.

Skype (http://skype.com/)
Primarily a computer-to-computer service but you can buy connections in and/or out of the classical phone system. They sell tons of accessories including handsets so you’re not tethered to the computer. With decent broadband, excellent quality service – radio stations use them. Some are stant-alone and, presumably, give you a Skype connection anywhere you can get open WiFi.
Basic service free but lots of penny and nickel features available.

Vonage (http://vonage.com/)
This is the service I’ve used for 7 years, but am currently a little down on. I can’t document whether my service issues are related to Vonage or my ISP. They try to be a full function phone company replacement that you plug directly into your current house phone wiring and use all your classical equipment. They have some call management features similar to Google.
Our “$17.99” plan bills out about $25. No computer needed.

Here are some other services that I know about, but have never used.

Your ISP
All the internet providers (include the phone companies) are trying to sell you phone services. They offer the reliability you’re used to from a single source for prices you’re used to paying.

Magic Jack (http://magicjack.com/)
This is sort of a hybrid of Skype and Vonage. Plug an adapter into your computer and plug your house wiring into the adapter. Last I looked at it, they seemed a little sleazy in terms of pushing ads at you, etc.
Always-on computer required.

Packet 8 (http://www.8x8.com/)
I’ve never looked at them, but a (cheap) associate dumped his Skype dial-in/out for them. At first glance, they seem to sell full-featured phone systems to home or small businesses.

Being based in 21st century technology rather than 19th, all these services provide for free the upgrades the phone company has been making their profits off of for 30 years. Things like voicemail, voicemail notification, caller ID, conference calling, free long distance, ultra-cheap international calls, and more. Except for Vonage, most of them don’t add all the extra charges at the bottom of your classic phone bill.

Most of the services can transfer your current phone number. I always recommend letting them assign you a number until you’ve tried them for a couple months. Then you can transfer the number you’ve had for 25 years.

The downside is that, except for your ISP, they’re all separate services that you have to buy, install, and configure yourself. As far as I know, only Vonage and your ISP support 911. Support and reliability may be iffy and they are dependent on getting power out of the wall.

Creative Commons License. This work by Bill Barnes is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://zaitech.com/satellite/contacts.htm.
(c) 2010 Bill Barnes - Disclaimer - Home Page - Blogs Home

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Sunday, January 31, 2010


Forever (that is, 16 months) I have scraped articles off the web and downloaded them as text to my smartphone to read while I waited for carryout - or anywhere else I had minutes to kill. These are handy and comfortable to read on the 2.3" screen except the system doesn't hold my place and I have to scroll down to continue every time I get interrupted.

I recently took a trip and was anticipating 30 hours in transit and 6 plane changes. Naturally, I wanted to travel very light and not lug the stack of magazines that is my usual diversion. On my trip, since I carried a different phone (because of coverage), I downloaded a couple books to my old PDA so I could have entire novels on a 3.5" screen at 10 oz (including charger). This worked perfectly as I read one book on the way out and finished the other on the way home. I had the books I wanted, not whatever was in the airport newstand, and still have them when I got home. Incidentally, in the same pocket; I carried my contacts list, schedule, ticket and event confirmations, MP3 player, backup memory for my photos, notepad, and calculator.

Digital journalism was a natural fit for the personal computer as soon as the web was a widespread distribution medium. Music became virtual in a big hurry, followed by movies and television. Books without paper will be the next traditional medium to fall.

Actually, Project Gutenberg started to digitize books in 1971 with a goal of distributing and preserving out-of-copyright books. In 2004, Google announced it would partner with prominent libraries to digitize entire collections. Other, less prominent, projects are also working to turn literature into bits.

The market problem has never been content. Whether Gutenberg's 30,000 titles or Google's 7,000,000; the real question is who wants to drag their computer into bed with them and read off a screen. Whether the morning newspaper, or War and Peace, a computer does not have the familiarity and versatility of dead trees. Often there are also issues with the presentation be they intrusive advertising; fixed size and length of text that may not be comfortable on your screen; or scanned images that aren't text, and may not be sharp either.

For content that is expected to be read offline, resourceful people have always been able to move it to a PDA such as a Palm or Windows handheld. More recently with the introduction of E Ink ; Sony, Amazon, and now, a host of other companies offer a reader that is, not an exact replica, but competitive in feel to a paperback book. And Apple, this week, promise to up the market with their iPad which features a full-color touch screen instead of the gray-on-gray of the current generation of E Ink. (Disclaimer: I have not actually seen or held dedicated readers. My comments are hearsay.) At least as significantly, most of the device vendors include a store to buy the books. Not only can a non-geek now get a device to read books and periodicals but they can also load it up with content as easily as they load their MP3 player with music.

When Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, it included a revolutionary flat-rate price of $9.95 for best sellers. Naturally publishers were not happy with this 50%-60% or more discount off the usual cover price for books on paper. But consider that mass-market books rarely sell for list. Also, there is no marginal cost for each additional copy of the book sold. If a $25 book wholesales for $10 and costs $6 to produce and distribute; plus another, maybe, $2.50 for the author; the publisher will get $1.50-$4.00 clear profit per copy. They can make the same profit by sending the electronic manuscript furnished by the author or editor to Amazon or any other distributor for $5-$7 for each copy sold. Even if the sales are totally cannibalistic, the publisher has nothing to lose. (Here, Apple threatens to break the model by allowing the publishers to set their own price - which is the opposite of what the iTunes store did in 2000.)

Although each device is linked to its own bookstore, they are also multipurpose. They can display content in other, generic, formats and play MP3s. Some may have software to read a book out loud. Some may have a wireless connection for content and web browsing while others have to be linked to a computer to upload books. And using a PDA, smartphone, or netbook as a reader may offer other computer features such as a calendar, contact list, or writing and calculating tools.

Most book formats, especially paid ones, can be resized and automatically reflow according to your visual needs. For example, what might be a 325 page paperback was 411 "pages" on my PC and 1934 "pages" on my PDA. You also may want to consider features that enhance the readability. These might include placemarkers, search capability, ability to add notes, and the ability to move books to another device or share them with friends. Even the quality of how the table of contents or index links into the book can affect your experience.

If you want to dip your toe into ebooks, a web search will turn up a plethora of sources for books in a variety of formats that you can read on a laptop or smartphone you already own. Then you can decide whether you want to buy a dedicated device or go back to paper. If you read 2 books a month, you might be able to recover the cost of a Kindle within a year; plus you won't have to build another bookshelf or run to the consignment store.

One site I've gone to experience ebooks is SciFi-AZ.com where the author self-publishes his books in a variety of formats. Try it out for yourself!

Creative Commons License. This work by Bill Barnes is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://zaitech.com/satellite/contacts.htm.
(c) 2010 Bill Barnes - Disclaimer - Home Page - Blogs Home


Problems come in bunches – or maybe they’re always there in the pantheon of problems and I recognize a “bunch” when it’s time to write this letter. This week I’ve gotten a number of calls where a user has “lost” some information on or in their computer. (Most modern operating systems and many recent program versions automatically install "send to PDF" [or some such term] as a printer available to all other programs. If you're offline, use this to "print" to a file which you can open and print when next you have paper and ink available.)

One user printed a valuable coupon off a website while he was offline. He knew from experience that he would get ink on paper when he reconnected to the printer later. Unfortunately, he printed to a non-existent printer installed on his computer. We can see the job sitting in the queue, but have to figure out how to redirect a document from one printer to another.

Another user depended on a browser to store all her critical websites and passwords. This included a stored-value site where she had a $40-$50 credit available. When a computer glitch corrupted the browser, she had no other record of her logon and the vendor could not (would not) recover her account. (see also https://fromthehelpdesk.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-deal-about-passwords.html)

A user in a 2-person office called to say she had lost the shortcut to a shared folder off her desktop. I set this up several months ago and could not, off the top of my head, tell her exactly where that folder is. My best suggestion was for her to try and figure out the path from the shortcut still on the boss’ computer. Failing that, it would require a service call – tomorrow.

Another manager called (when I wasn’t at their office, natch) to say someone, sometime, had deleted a record from a database. Could I please recover that record from the backup – oh, and he needs it today. The company has a good backup system, but it’s managed by the corporate helpdesk. Restore requests will be processed in 3-5 days. Because at one time they were doing extensive, sloppy, maintenance on this database; I also create a daily backup on my local desktop. Except I can’t easily locate the record they need remotely.

The moral is Think before you do something permanent. If you don’t get immediate feedback from printing a document, be sure you save it so you can reprint later. If you’re going to delete something, go ahead and send it to the Recycle Bin. Storage is, generally, cheap and there’s no harm in waiting a couple months before actually deleting it. You can go to the Recycle Bin (or your mail client’s trash) and wholesale permanently delete older items some day while you’re waiting on hold. And if you're changing a database (or a complex document that functions as a database), template, or configuration; save a copy before you make extensive changes.

Creative Commons License. This work by Bill Barnes is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://zaitech.com/satellite/contacts.htm.
(c) 2009 Bill Barnes - Disclaimer - Home Page - Blogs Home