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I'm the weekly tech critic for the New York Times. I review gadgets and stuff. And mostly what good dads should be doing this time of year is nestling with their kids and decorating the Christmas tree. What I'm mostly doing this year is going on cable TV and answering the same question: "What are the tech trends for next year?" And I'm like, "Didn't we just go through this last year?"
But I'm going to pick the one that interests me most, and that is the completed marriage of the cell phone and the Internet. You know, I found that volcano on Google Images, not realizing how much it makes me look like the cover of Dianetics.
Anyway, this all started a few years ago, when they started carrying your voice over the Internet rather than over a phone line, and we've come a long way since that. But that was interesting in itself. This is companies like Vonage. Basically you take an ordinary telephone, you plug it into this little box that they give you and the box plugs into your cable modem. Now, it works just like a regular phone. So you can pick up the phone, you hear a dial tone, but its just a fake-out. It's a WAV file of a dial tone, just to reassure you that the world hasn't ended. It could be anything. It could be salsa music or a comedy routine -- it doesn't matter. The little box has your phone number. So that's really cool -- you can take it to London or Siberia, and your next door neighbor can dial your home number and your phone will ring, because it's got everything in the box. They've got every feature known to man in there, because adding a new feature is just software.
And as a result of Voice Over IP -- I hate that term -- Voice Over Internet -- land-line home-phone service has gone down 30 percent in the last three years. I mean, no self-respecting college kid has home phone service anymore. This is what college kids are more likely to have. It's the most popular VOIP service in the world: It's Skype. It's a free program you download for your Mac or PC, and you make free phone calls anywhere in the world The downside is that you have to wear a headset like a nerd. It's not your phone -- it's your computer. But nonetheless, if you're a college kid and you have no money, believe me, this is better than trying to use your cell phone.
It's really cute seeing middle-aged people like me, try out Skype for the first time, which is usually when their kid goes away for a semester abroad. They don't want to pay the international fees, so they're like, "Timmy! Is that you?"
I think where VOIP is really going to get interesting is when they start putting it on cell phones. Imagine if you had an ordinary cell phone, and any time you were in a wireless hotspot -- free calls anywhere in the world, never pay the cellular company a nickel. It'd be really, really cool -- and yet, even though the technology for this has been available for five years, incredibly, the number of standard cell phones offered by US carriers with free VOIP is zero! I can't figure out why!
Actually, I need to update that. There's one now. And it's so interesting that I thought I would tell you about it. It comes from T-Mobile. And I am not paid by T-Mobile. I'm not plugging T-Mobile. The New York Times has very rigid policies about that. Ever since that Jayson Blair jerk ruined it for all of us.
Basically, the reason you haven't heard about this program is because it was introduced last year on June 29. Does anyone remember what else happened on June 29 last year? It was the iPhone. The iPhone came out that day. I'm like, can you imagine being the T-Mobile PR lady? You know?
But it's actually really, really cool. You have a choice of phones, and we're not talking smartphones -- ordinary phones, including a Blackberry, that have Wi-Fi. The deal is, any time you're in a Wi-Fi hotspot, all your calls are free. And when you're out of the hotspot, you're on the regular cellular network. You're thinking, "Well, how often am I in a hotspot?" The answer is, "All the time!" Because they give you a regular wireless router that works with the phone, for your house. Which is really ingenious, because we all know that T-Mobile is the most pathetic carrier. They have coverage like the size of my thumbnail. (Laughter) But it's a hundred million dollars to put up one of those towers. Right? They don't have that kind of money. Instead they give each of us a seven-dollar-and-95-cent box. They're like a stealth tower installation program. We're putting it in our homes for them!
Anyway, they have Wi-Fi phones in Europe. But the thing that T-Mobile did that nobody's done before is, when you're on a call an you move from Wi-Fi into cellular range, the call is handed off in mid-syllable, seamlessly. I'll show you the advanced technologies we use at the New York Times to test this gear. This is me with a camcorder on a phone going like this.
The bottom line is that the boundaries, because of the Internet plus cell phone, are melting. The cool thing about the T-Mobile phones is that although switching technologies is very advanced, the billing technology has not caught up. So what I mean is that you can start a call in your house in the Wi-Fi hotspot, you can get in your car and talk until the battery's dead -- which would be like 10 minutes --
And the call will continue to be free. Because they don't, they haven't -- well, no, wait! Not so fast. It also works the other way. So if you start a call on your cellular network and you come home, you keep being billed. Which is why most people with this service get into the habit of saying, "Hey, I just got home. Can I call you right back?" Now you get it. It's also true that if you use one of these phones overseas, it doesn't know what Internet hotspot you're in. On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, right? Nobody knows you're in Pakistan. You can make free unlimited calls home to the US with these phones. So, very, very interesting.
This is another favorite of mine. Does anyone here have a working cell phone that's on, with coverage, who can make a call right now without a lot of fussing? OK. Would you call me please right now? [Phone number given.] And don't you all call me at three a.m. asking me to fix your printer.
I have two cell phones, so this going to be very odd, if it works. I should know not to do technology demos in front of an audience. It's just, like, absurd. This one is going off. And -- oh, I have the ringer off. Tsh! Great. Anyway, this one is also going off. So they're both ringing at the same time. Excuse me one second. Hello? Oh. Where are you calling from? No, no just kidding. There he is. Thank you very much for doing that. I didn't even know it was you -- I was looking at this guy. Oh great! Yeah. Yeah you can all stop calling now!
Grand Central is this really brilliant idea where they give you a new phone number, and then at that point one phone number rings all your phones at once. Your home phone, your work phone, your cell phone, your yacht phone (this is the EG crowd).
The beauty of that is you never miss a call. I know a lot of you are like, "Ooh, I don't want to be reached at any hour." But the beauty is it's all going through the internet, so you get all of these really cool features -- like you can say, I want these people to be able to call me only during these hours. And I want these people to hear this greeting, "Hi boss, I'm out making us both some money. Leave a message." And then your wife calls, and, "Hi honey, leave me a message." Very, very customizable. Google bought it, and they've been working on it for a year. They're supposed to come out with it very shortly in a public method.
By the way, this is something that really bothers me. I don't know if you realize this. When you call 411 on your cell phone, they charge you two bucks. Did you know that? It's an outrage. I actually got a photograph of the Verizon employee right there. I'm going to tell you how to avoid that now. What you're going to use is Google Cellular. It's totally free -- there's not even ads. If you know how to send a text message, you can get the same information for free. I'm about to change your life. So here's me doing it. You send a text message to the word "Google," which turns out to be 46645. Leave off the last "e" for savings.
Anyway, so lets say you need a drugstore near Chicago. You type "pharmacy Chicago," or the zip code. You hit send, and in five seconds, they will send you back the two closest drugstores, complete with name address and phone number. Here it comes. And it's already written down -- so, like, if you're driving, you don't have to do one of these things, "Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh."
It works with weather, too. You can say "Weather," and the name of the city you're going to travel to. And then in five seconds, they send you back the complete weather forecast for that town. Shortly I'll tell you why I was in Milan. Here we go. And those are just the beginning. These are all the different things that you can text to Google and they will -- yeah! You're all trying to write this down. That's cute. I do have an email address. You can just ask me. It's absolutely phenomenal. The only downside is that it requires you to know how to text -- send a text message. Nobody over 40 knows how to do that.
So I'm going to teach you something even better. This is called Google Info. They've just launched this voice-activated version of the same thing. It's speech recognition like you've never heard before. So lets say I'm in Monterey, and I want what? I want to find what? Bagels. OK.
Google: Bagels, Monterey, California. Top eight results: Number one, Bagel Bakery on El Dorado Street. To select number one, you can press one or say "number one." Number two: Bagel Bakery, commissary department.
DP: Hi, could I have 400 with a schmear? No, no, no -- just kidding, no no. So anyway, you never even find out the number. It's just so amazing. And it has incredible, incredible accuracy. This is even more amazing. Put this in your speed dial. This you can ask by voice any question. Who won the 1958 World Series? What's the recipe for a certain cocktail? It's absolutely amazing -- and they text you back the answer. I tried this this morning just to make sure it's still alive. "Which actors have played James Bond?" They text me back this: "Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig." Right! And then I was trying to pretend I was like a Valley girl. I'm like, "What's the word that means you know, like, when the sun, the moon and the earth are, like, all in a line?" Just to see how the recognition was. They texted me back, "It's called a syzygy." Which I knew, because it's the word that won me the Ohio spelling bee in 1976.
You know, there's a lot of people wondering, "How on earth are they going to make money doing this?" And the answer is: look at the last line. They put this teeny-weeny little ad, about 10 characters long. And a lot of people also want to know, "How does it work? How can it be so good? It's as though there is a human being on the other end of the line." Because there is one! They have 10,000 people who are being paid 20 cents per answer. As you can imagine, it's college kids and old people. That's who can afford to do that. But it's a human being on the line. And it's gotten me out of so many tough positions like, "When's the last flight out of Chicago?" You know. It's just absolutely amazing.
Another thing that really bothers me about cell phones today -- this is probably my biggest pet peeve in all of technology. When I call to leave you a message, I get 15 seconds of instructions from a third-grade teacher on Ambien!
Oh! You all have cell phones too. So last year I went to Milan, Italy, and I got to speak to an audience of cellular executives from 200 countries around the world. And I said as a joke -- as a joke, I said, "I did the math. Verizon has 70 million customers. If you check your voicemail twice a day, that's 100 million dollars a year. I bet you guys are doing this just to run up our airtime, aren't you?" No chuckle. They're like this --
So now I'm going to tell you how to get out of that. There are these services that transcribe your voicemail into text. And they send it either to your email or as text messages to your phone. It is a life-changer. And by the way, they don't always get the words right, because it's over the phone and all that. So they attach the audio file at the bottom of the email so you can listen to double-check. The services are called things like Spinvox, Phonetag -- this is the one I use -- Callwave. A lot of people say, "How are they doing this? I don't really want people listening in to my calls." The executives at these companies told me, "Well we use a proprietary B-to-B, best-of-breed, peer-to-peer soluti -- " you know. I think basically it's like these guys in India with headsets, you know, listening in.
The reason I think that is that on the first day I tried one of these services, I got two voicemail messages. One was from a guy named Michael Stevenson, which shouldn't be that hard to transcribe, and it was misspelled. The other was from my video producer at the Times, whose name is Vijaiy Singh, with the silent 'h'. Nailed that one.
(Video): Hello, this is Michael. Hope you're doing well. I'm fine here. Everything's good. Hey, I was walking along the street and the sky was blue. And your daughter broke her leg at soccer practice. I'm going to have a sandwich for lunch. She's in room -- emergency room 53W. OK, talk to you later -- bye.
So a couple minutes later, this I got by email. It's a very good transcription. But a couple minutes after that, I got the text message version. Now remember, a text message can only be 160 characters long. So it had better be the gist of the gist, right? I'm not kidding you. The message said,
And lastly, I just have to talk about this one. This is my favorite of all time. It's called Popularitydialer.com. Basically, you're going to go on some iffy date, or a potentially bad meeting. So you go and you type in your phone number, and at the exact minute where you want to be called --
And at that moment your phone will ring. And you're like, "I'm sorry. I've got to take this." The really beautiful thing is, you know how when somebody's sitting next to you, sometimes they can sort of hear a little bit of the caller. So they give you a choice of what you want to hear on the other end. Here's the girlfriend.
I think the biggest change when Internet met phone was with the iPhone. Not my finest moment in New York Times journalism. It was when in the fall of 2006, I explained why Apple would never do a cell phone.
I looked like a moron. However, my logic was good, because -- I don't know if you realize this, but -- until the iPhone came along, the carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Cingular -- held veto power over every aspect of every design of every phone. I know the people who worked on the Treo. They went around to these carriers and said,
"Look at these cool features." And Verizon is like, "Hmm, no. I don't think so." It was not very conducive to innovation. What I didn't anticipate was that Steve Jobs went around and said, "Tell you what -- I'll give you a five-year exclusive if you'll let me design this phone in peace -- and you won't even see it till it's done." Actually, even so, he was turned down by Verizon and others. Finally Cingular said OK.
I'm going to talk about the effect of the iPhone. Please don't corner me at the party tonight and go, "What are you? An Apple fan boy?" - you know. I'm not. You can see what I said about it. It's a flawed masterpiece. It's got bad things and good things. Lets all acknowledge that right now.
But it did change a few things. The first thing it changed was that all those carriers saw that they sold 10 million of these things in a year. And they said, "Oh my gosh, maybe we've been doing it wrong. Maybe we should let phone designers design the phones."
Another thing was that it let 10 million people, for the first time, experience being online all the time. Not using these 60-dollar-a-month cellular cards for their laptops. I don't understand why we're not there yet. When I'm an old man, I'm going to tell my grandchildren, "When I was your age, if I wanted to check my email, I used to drive around town looking for a coffee shop. I did!"
It's absurd. We have power outlets in every room of every building. We have running water. What's the problem? Anyway -- but this teaches people what it's like. You have to go to YouTube and type in "iPhone Shuffle." This guy did a mock video of one that's one inch square, like the real iPod Shuffle. It's like, "It only has one button. Touch it and it dials a number at random."
But the other thing it did is it opened up this idea of an app store. It downloads right to the phone. And you can use the tilt sensor to steer this car using this game. These programs can use all the components of the iPhone -- the touch screen. This is the Etch-A-Sketch program -- the theme of EG 2008. You know how you erase it? Of course. You shake it. Right, of course. We shake it to erase, like this.
They have 10,000 of these programs. This is the translator program. They have every language in the world. You type in what you want, and it gives you the translation. This is amazing. This is Midomi. A song is running through your head -- you sing it into the thing: do do do do do, da da da da da da, da dum ... OK, you tap, "Done" and it will find out the song and play it for you. I know. It's insane, right?
This is Pandora. Free Internet radio. Not just free Internet radio -- you type in a band or a song name. It will immediately play you that song or that band. It has a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down. You say if you like this song or not. If you like it, it tries another song on you from a different band, with the same instrumentation, vocals, theme and tempo. If you like that one, or don't like it, you do thumbs-up and thumbs-down. Over time it tailors the songs so that it completely stops playing bad songs. It eventually only plays songs you like.
This is Urbanspoon. You're in a city. It knows from GPS where you're standing. You want to find a place to eat. You shake it. It proposes a restaurant. It gives you the price, and the location and ratings. Video: I'm not going all the way to Flushing. Anyway, just amazing, amazing things. Of course, its not just about the iPhone.
The iPhone broke the dyke, the wall. But now it's everybody else. So Google has done their own Android operating system that will soon be on handsets -- phones from 34 companies. Touch screen -- very, very nice. Also with its own app store, where you can download programs.
This is amazing. In the wake of all this, Verizon, the most calcified, corporate, conservative carrier of all, said, "You can use any phone you want on our network." I love the Wired headline: Pigs Fly, Hell Freezes Over and Verizon Opens Up Its Network -- No. Really.
So everything is changing. We've entered a new world of innovation, where the cell phone becomes your laptop, customized the way you want it. Every cell phone is unique. There is software that you can add on. Can I do one more one-minute song? Thank you.
Sorry, that was mean. This is a song I did for the New York Times website as a music video. Ladies and gentlemen, for seven blissful hours it was the number one video on YouTube. (To the tune of "My Way")
And now the end is near. I'm sick to death of this old cell phone. Bad sound, the signal's weak, the software stinks. A made-in-Hell phone. I've heard there's something new -- a million times more rad than my phone. I too will join the cult. I want an iPhone. Concerns -- I have a few. It's got some flaws; we may just face it. No keys, no memory card, the battery's sealed -- you can't replace it. But God, this thing is sweet. A multitouch, iPod, Wi-Fi phone. You had me from, "Hello." I want an iPhone. I want to touch its precious screen. I want to wipe the smudges clean. I want my friends to look and drool. I want to say, "Look -- now I'm cool" I stood in line and I'll get mine. I want an iPhone. For what is a man? What has he got? If not iPhone, then he's got squat. It's all the things a phone should be. Who cares if it's AT&T? I took a stand, paid half a grand! And I got an iPhone!
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In this engaging talk from the EG'08 conference, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue rounds up some handy cell phone tools and services that can boost your productivity and lower your bills (and your blood pressure).
David Pogue is the personal technology columnist for the New York Times and a tech correspondent for CBS News. He's also one of the world's bestselling how-to authors, with titles in the For Dummies series and his own line of "Missing Manual" books. Full bio »