Skype is still down

Well, there I was saying how great a consumer service Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling is and it’s been down for almost a day. Oh well.

http://www.skype.com/intl/en-us/StatusUpdate/

When it’s back up, it’ll still be a good value. Sadly, it’s not reliable, as in “bomb proof” as in the “5 nines” and 99.999 % up time. Skype had issues earlier this past week with “login authentication” so clearly there’s been some sort of back end shenanigans that’s created this mess. Oh well, the separation pains from eBay perhaps. But, how about that T-Mobile Pre-Paid? It works. How about that Google Voice? Calls are free in 2011, booya! Except when people I call say it sounds terrible and I have to call them back on Skype. Oh wait a minute. Drat.

Goodbye Comet

I returned the T-Mobile Comet and exchanged it for a cheap candy bar style Nokia prepaid phone. Android 2.2, on the Comet, simply required too much work. Skype was nearly unusable. The Gmail native app from Google had to be updated, and even then the sync functionality with Gmail didn’t work correctly. Let me re-state that: Gmail didn’t work correctly on a Google phone. Thankfully contacts synced fine, but I had to update nearly every app that came with the phone.

So, maybe it’s something to do with Huwaei and the T-Mobile build of Froyo 2.2 or perhaps things simply aren’t as polished across the board. Compared to my experiences with iOS 3.x and 4.x I’d say it’s like night and day. Yes, it’d be nice to have a bulk task manager (other than double clicking ‘home’) in iOS 4.2, but it doesn’t really make a difference, you can run 20 apps “backgrounded”. In Android you absolutely must use a task killer or your phone runs out of memory and turns to molasses. Multitasking in iOS simply works and is more intuitive. Skype works nearly as well as a native phone dialer, Netflix streams terrifically, and the bundled iOS apps are all winners. And with the 4.2 update I can stream audio to the Airport Express directly from the iPod Touch and wirelessly print. At no point using Android did I think to myself, ‘Man this is so much easier/quicker/better than the iPod Touch’, in fact I lamented that for $180, despite being the cheapest Android phone on the market, it just wasn’t very good.

It’s unfortunate, in my limited usage of WebOS I’d say that Palm had a superior product that was poorly marketed, that suffered early quality control issues, and with HP’s purchase, has essentially died a premature death. Compared to Android 2.2 – WebOS 1.x feels significantly more polished – and really should be second to Apple in smart phone market share. When you go to the Verizon store and look at the myriad Android phones (several now bundled with Bing! as default search engine) it becomes clear that the carriers and Google simply don’t care about the user’s experience. While I’m sure the newest Nexus S is a better example of what Android can do, I don’t trust telecommunication companies to make good UID & IxD decisions.

Huwaei Bitches! Taking over the world one inexpensive Android handset at a time

I was in need of a phone after dropping off the map and switching my cell line to virtual carrier 3jam. In the US post-paid contracts vary between $40-$100/month (by which American’s pay the most in the world on a per-minute/megabyte rates) and often the the cheaper plans gouge on text messages and have fewer minutes.

So, I bought a Huwaei Ideos (T-Mobile “Comet”) pre-paid, off contract.  It features Android 2.2 & runs Skype natively.  So far I’ve been happy with Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling plan, and 3jam forwards to Skype natively using OpenSky. Problems in the system arise when you’re masking numbers (IDs) and sending text messages (IDs again) and dealing with multiple voicemails and trying to use Google Voice. Here is a short list of bullet points in my limited experience so far with virtual lines and consumer VoIP telephony.

1) Skype has the best call quality, using both smart phones and computers, in/out of PSTN and VoIP & as an added bonus Skype can ID itself as your cell line.  The downside to Skype (even with their new 5.x beta) is that the user interface is absolutely terrible.  Using 2.8.x for OS X involves managing three different windows with countless notifications that are difficult to turn off or remove.  In the 5.x beta I made a video call, switched to chat mode, and was unable to ever switch back to the video call!  I was stuck in chat mode for all future calls.  I reverted back to 2.8.x.  I’m not sure if it’s a function of eBay slowly bleeding them to death or they simply are not hiring professionals in UX/IxD; either way it’s embarrassing.

2) Google Voice and SIP tend to result in garbled conversations, usually forcing a Skype Out call.  Google bought Gizmo5 which now gives any Gmail user a “phone” when they’re logged into Gmail.  Again, the sound quality isn’t superb but there is the convenience of taking calls from within an already open window.

3) 3jam.com has great SMS features but their web interface (which lacks an HTML5 mobile interface) and pricing structure need an overhaul.  Probably the most killer feature of 3jam (and GV) is being able to send and receive SMSs within Gmail. And the fact is they were the only company I was able to find on planet earth that allows you to port-in your number and send/receive SMS’s eg. they’re a virtual number switching service just like Google Voice.

4) Google Voice doesn’t allow adjustment of their voicemail ring extension (25 seconds = however many rings) while 3jam allows you to adjust pickup time in seconds. And to make things worse, Skype’s voicemail is implemented based upon your subscription which once enabled, cannot be turned off! The work around seems to be to cancel your subscription, which seems ridiculous if you bought a year subscription and need to turn off Skype’s voicemail (note: when Skype is running there is a “disable voicemail” option, however, when Skype is not active its voicemail takes over).

So all of this is to say that I’m not sure if it’s the best system for everyone. It’s certainly more versatile, in that I can forward my main number to any number I want (in the world) and pay reasonable rates while doing it, call screening is unlimited and voicemail is transcribed and emailed to me. I do think Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling is a terrific deal and it does consistently have very good call quality. In the US Sprint (& prepaid Virgin Mobile) each have very inexpensive plans, T-Mobile averages $0.10-$0.15/min prepaid. It really depends on your usage and how many minutes you talk on your cell phone while outside of the house, and perhaps even what mobile network your friends/family use.

VoIP had/has the potential to drastically reduce user’s cost of telephony except that cable and phone providers are in the business of making money and not reducing consumer’s communications bills. “Triple Play” packages that usually start at $100/mo are not a good value when you consider that these companies are paying pennies on the dollar now to provide phone service (that is now routed digitally). Similarly, mobile data plans costs are on the rise as carriers begin to cap total data usage and/or charge for extended features such as tethering4GLTE etc. Verizon and Skype even penned a deal whereby Skype minutes (even over Wi-Fi) result in monthly minutes being used! This is to say, if they can make money and “offer value” to consumers while decreasing mobile network usage they’ll do it. More about the Ideos phone in another post.

Full on Slovak Direct, Denali – from June 2010 (Huey & Westman)

BD grassroots athlete Jesse Huey reports on his ascent of Denali’s Slovak Direct route from Black Diamond Equipment on Vimeo.

Pretty insane. It makes the W. Rib (& even the Cassin) look tame. Frost nip, beware indeed, kick those feet. Very impressive and I think committed is definitely the name of the game here (figuratively and literally). Triple rainbow all the way.

The full text of the original post on Black Diamond’s grassroots athlete journal page is here.

A web application that is a browser & vice versa

Lately I’ve been using Gmail to take my incoming phone calls over Google Voice (via 3jam). At some point I grew tired of paying a large carrier what I deemed an excessive monthly fee for not very many cellular minutes and I ported my cell line to 3jam. I already had a Google Voice number so I forward my old cell number (via 3jam) to GV. I tend to miss calls, however, when I either forget to leave Skype open or I close my instance of Gmail. Thankfully, there is a solution: Fluid (& Prism) run with the idea of site specific browsers (SSBs) giving web applications a native feel.

The basic concept is that you can create an icon for web applications to run “stand alone”. In my case Gmail (& Google Voice, or Reader) can be launched as “applications” and easily backgrounded. Fluid is easy to use and extensible with scripts, enabling a plethora of possibilities. When using Gmail as a phone it requires both Flash (& Google Talk plugins) in your Internet Plug-Ins directory to be able to make/receive phone calls.

This is not the most ideal solution for VoIP calling. Siemens sells the Gigaset which would allow me to take VoIP/SIP based calls at home over a “normal” handset with out having to have a computer with Gmail open. ATA (analog telephone adapters) allow the use “plain old telephones” to be plugged into your home network, generally the same idea as the Gigaset, though the Gigaset integrates a 1.9GHz wireless transmission system and VoIP router into one package.

The final part of this puzzle to save on monthly usage fees is a prepaid cell phone (depending on your usage). T-Mobile recently released a pleasantly inexpensive Android 2.2 powered handset made by Huawei called the Comet. For about $150 this not terrible Android phone gives PDA functionality and can use Skype/SIP calling over WiFi. The rest of the time minutes are forwarded and used at the standard T-Mobile $0.10/min rate prepaid rate.

Gmail on your dock

Gmail icons for Fluid by EvenWu on Flickr

Reading text online: Instapaper & Readability

I’ve been reading a lot more articles online. Not just blogs, mind you, but nice “long reads”. It started with our trip to Asia and buying the Instapaper App for iOS. It’s one of the best “reading” applications out there. Its killer feature is the ability to sync bookmarked articles across multiple platforms, but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I want to look at the problem of reading long texts on LCD screens.

Keith Peters did a home experiment with a USB microscope showing a Kindle’s eInk display vs. the iPad vs ink on paper at 400x magnification. And this doesn’t take into account eye strain based on font size and glare. Dave Carnoy, over at CNet, wrote an article recently discussing the merits of display types and wonders how the new Nook Color will fit into the spectrum of eReading devices. And here is where I’ll throw in my $0.02.

We used the 3rd generation iPod Touch on our trip to Asia as a laptop replacement. In fact, more than a laptop replacement, because most people will never read an entire book on their laptop. Very few people if given the choice would read a book in its entirety on a laptop screen. And yet we found plenty of old titles for free at the Project Gutenberg library and it added no weight to our backpacks! I find I cannot stare at the iPod touch for more than a couple of hours before my eyes hurt. Unsurprisingly the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch 4th generation have higher resolution “Retina” touch displays that make text easier on the eyes. Also rumor has it that the next gen iPad will also have a higher resolution display. Kindle and other eInk displays lend themselves to book and long article reading (though currently they don’t run Skype!) but are not backlit.

So that leaves a question of how to make reading easier on the eyes when you’re using your laptop and desktop LCD displays? David Pogue wrote a post a year ago about the wonderfulness of Arc90’s “Readablity” Experiment. They created a Bookmarklet that redirects any page of text online and reformats it for ease of reading. It works best with long single articles, and sometimes on multiple page readings it easiest to click “format for printing” first and then click the Readability Bookmarklet, as all pages will then be formatted on one.

So what does it look like? How does it compare? From a preview of the first paragraph on this page you get:

Versus using the Readability Bookmarklet:

And the beauty of the Bookmarklet is that it’s customizable in terms of margin, style, font size and will even footnote the hyperlinks in a given text so that they don’t distract from reading. Which brings me back to Instapaper. The whole idea behind the Instapaper app is reading. Crowd sourcing, content curation, these are a couple of the buzzwords that are bandied about lately, however, by sourcing from a site such as “Give Me Something To Read” consumers have at their fingertips access to fantastic journalism.

Using the iOS it’s a “native experience” and using Kindle web content will be “synced” wirelessly, either way, the beauty of it is that I don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of magazines, the “Editor’s picks” come to me and if they sound interesting I read them. And I believe that’s what’s most interesting about all of this, whilst countless people have said “The web is dying, print is dying, people never read anymore, etc.” and yet here is proof that the written word is very much alive and easier to access than ever before. So to Marco Arment and Arc90 Lab, thanks.