smartphone

moto 360 Review

A while ago I wrote about my somewhat disappointing experience with the original Galaxy Gear, Fitbit, and Google Glass in an article "The (Broken) Promise of Wearables". It seems that I may have to revise my opinion a bit based on the new moto 360 smart watch:


First of all, I will admit that I'm a huge watch aficionado and have a collection of several beautiful mechanical timepieces and complications, as well as functional sport watches. So the Galaxy Gear  just hurts from a design perspective - both in its original form as well as the Gear 2 and the new Gear S. I have also been less than impressed by the new Apple Watch. Despite all the claims by others that it is beautiful, in my eyes it has the same flaw as the Galaxy Gear: the watch is square. Most display screens are rectangular, so they just built a watch around a square or rectangular screen.

However, there is a reason that the majority of watches have evolved with a circular dial. It is the most comfortable to wear, because it doesn't limit the movement of your wrist. And it has a timeless elegance to it.

So I was actually quite excited to receive my moto 360 this week and give it a spin. It has all the cool features we're obviously expecting from a smart watch nowadays: step counter, heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth connection to your cell phone, showing notifications from your phone on your wrist, navigation, voice commands, etc.

Compared to the original Galaxy Gear I tested a year ago, however, the notifications are actually meaningful on the watch now. You get a preview of important emails, text messages, WhatsApp, FB Messenger, and any other app that properly uses the notification API in Android.



If you want to see more of the notification, you just swipe up and get to see the whole message:



Ah, much clearer now. The question was about a college course, not a reptilian issue. The new Android Wear platform also allows you to tap such a notification on your watch, and the corresponding app on your phone gets launched. So if you need to respond to an email, just tap your watch as you take your phone out of your pocket, and you're right where you need to be.

If you need to do a quick Google search, you can now do that from your wrist with voice input and also see the top three results right on your wrist - or tap them to open them on your phone, if you need more details. For example, a search for "XML Editor" produced this:



On the hardware side, the moto 360 gets a lot right, that other smart watches got wrong. The charging cradle provides wireless charging and turns the watch into a nice bedside table alarm clock. There is only one button on the watch, and it is exactly where the crown used to be on mechanical watches. All other user interaction is done via the touch screen with intuitive swipe operations. The wrist strap is available in leather now and a metal version is coming later this year. The watch body is stainless steel with the glass surface being Corning Gorilla glass.

Last, but not least, you obviously get a choice of 6 different built-in watch faces, including a nice retrograde display, and you can download and install additional watch faces from the app store - some of which are nicely customizable.


What I need now is for some clever app developer to create a really beautiful watch face that includes some of the classic complications: equation of time, moon phase, sunrise and sunset times, sidereal time, etc.

The (Broken) Promise Of Wearables

This week the Moto 360 became available and sold out in record time. Next week Apple is rumored to introduce their iWatch along with the next generation iPhone. And Samsung just announced their next generation Gear watch last week that is expected to ship at the same time as the Galaxy Note Edge.

It is clear that Wearables hold a lot of excitement and a lot of promise, and obviously capture people’s imagination. But let’s pause for a moment first, and talk about past experiences with Wearables:

Wearables on a table

Among the many tech gadgets that I’ve acquired in recent years, I also purchased the first Samsung Gear watch when it came out last year, I bought the Google Glass Explorer Edition, and I bought the Fitbit fitness tracker.

Each device held a unique promise that it would make life easier and would add useful functionality. And each device ended up breaking that promise in subtly different ways.

My experiment with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch was very short-lived. The essential promise was to show important information about incoming emails or messages without the need to have to reach into your pocket and get out your phone. However, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Apps on your phone had to be written to be compatible with the watch. And for the most important communications medium – email – all the watch would tell me is that a message had arrived from somebody. No subject line. No relevant content summary. It was essentially useless.

The Fitbit fitness tracker held a simpler promise: wear it all day and all night and track your health. Except that it is so small that I lost it about 3-4 times during travels and only rediscovered it again when I emptied the suitcase after the end of the trip. Here it was the need to go to your computer and sync it there that broke the promise of ease of use. And the tracking information was primitive at best – a simple step counter. I gained no useful benefit from the device that would really help with my weight loss efforts.

Google Glass was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the three. The promise of having an augmented reality experience sounded great. But all it really did was provide notifications about messages, news, and occasional information from other Glass apps about restaurants, sightseeing spots, and other trivia. And after a short while any person wearing Google Glass was labeled a Glasshole and privacy concerns soon resulted in sings being posted everywhere that Glass was not welcome.

In the end, all three devices suffered from a lack of really useful and unique features that actually provided a real-world benefit combined with the need to be constantly charged using various different charging devices and having a fairly short battery life. The day came when I forgot to charge them and then left them at home. Then the day came when I forgot where I put the charger. And now they’re all sitting in a drawer somewhere…

So I look towards the new generation of Wearables coming out this fall with a bit of cynical skepticism: how long until they, too, end up in a drawer somewhere?

In the end, there are only two devices that I carry with me all the time and every day:

  • My watch is a Seiko Astron Kintaro Hattori Limited Edition. It is a solar-powered watch that has a built-in GPS receiver and synchronizes time with the atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites. And it also automatically adjusts your time-zone when you have landed – based on the GPS position. It never needs to be charged and it does one thing extremely well that I care about: tell accurate time.
  • My phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (soon to be replaced by the Note Edge). I’ve gone through many smartphones over the years, and it is my favorite so far. I hate its battery life. I hate that I have to charge it. But it does so many things so well in just one device, that it’s worth the hassle. And I use it all the time.

That last point is, perhaps, the biggest question about Wearables that we should ask ourselves: if we already have our phones in our hands all day anyway, what is the additional benefit of a wearable device?

Big Data analysis applied to retail shopping behavior

Everybody knows that online retailers like Amazon track customer behavior on their website down to every last click and then analyze it to improve their site. But when it comes to regular retail locations collecting detailed customer data by tracking their every move, people seem to be surprised, and sometimes even outraged…

Tracking Shoppers in Retail

It is somewhat ironic that we are used to being tracked online, but when customer tracking - sometimes even based on the very smartphones we carry in our pockets - hits the real world, privacy concerns abound. Interestingly, the same systems have been used for years to prevent theft, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. But once Big Data gets collected and is analyzed for more than just theft prevention and is utilized to analyze shopping behavior and improve store layouts, things get a bit murky on the privacy implications.

The NY Times has a nice article about this today, including a video that shows some of the systems in action. Very cool technology is being used from video surveillance to WiFi signal tracking, and I guess this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

It will also be interesting to see how the privacy implications around Google Glass play out in the next couple of months. If the government can track and record everybody and if business can track and record their customers, then why shouldn't ordinary people also be allowed to constantly record and analyze everything happening around them?

When George Orwell coined the phrase "Big Brother is watching you" in his Nineteen Eight-Four novel, the dystopian vision of a government watching our every moves seemed to be the epitome of an oppressive evil. Nowadays, privacy concerns have certainly evolved over the past decade to the point where video cameras on street corners are taken for granted in many democracies and I'm sure we'll see a continued evolution of our understanding of privacy in the years to come.

Additional Coverage: Techmeme, Marketing Land, iMore, Business Insider, The Verge

Ingress - an AR-MMOG created by Niantic Labs at Google

I don't often write about games on my blog, but this one deserves an exception, because it is extremely innovative, unique, and a harbinger of things to come. On November 15 Google launched a closed beta of Ingress, a sci-fi themed game currently available only on the Android platform.

Ingress defines a new category of game that could probably be best described as AR-MMOG (Augmented Reality - Massively Multiplayer Online Game). The basic premise is that an alien influence called Shapers are trying to control human thought and are entering the world through portals that are often associated with historically significant locations, statues, or public displays of arts. These portals are associated with Exotic Matter (called XM in the game) that needs to be collected to energize the player as well as the portals.

Players must move through the real world and visit these portals with their GPS-equipped Android smartphones to play the game.

The objective is to hack the portals, link different portals, and create so-called control fields by forming triangles of linked portals. After completing a few training missions, players must choose a faction and either side with the Resistance, who are trying to protect mankind and prevent further Shaper influence, or side with the Enlightened, who consider Shaper influence to be beneficial and usher in the next logical step in the evolution of mankind.

Enlightened vs. Resistance

I was very happy to receive my invite to the closed beta on November 21 and found some time on the morning of Thanksgiving Day as well as on Black Friday to play the game on my Galaxy SIII. Doing so allowed me to take some extensive walks on both days and burn off a lot of the food calories that would have accumulated otherwise.

Playing the game is extremely addictive. I decided to join the Resistance and explored the available portals in and around Marblehead on the first day. Capturing my first few portals was fairly easy, but then I encountered some Enlightened portals that gave me a good challenge right away. Most of the portals are directly taken from the Historical Marker Database, so you learn a lot more about the history while playing the game. I also found that having a car to drive to neighboring towns and some remote portal locations is a huge bonus - especially when you get to deploy higher-level portals that have a range of several kilometers available for linking.

For example, on one of my excursions I took a stroll through downtown Salem in my quest to capture more portals and found one above the statue of Roger Conant:

Approaching a portal in Salem

By hacking and capturing one portal after the other, I was able to not only collect the required items for linking portals together, but also the necessary weapons for attacking portals of the opposing faction. And it didn't take long for me to eliminate all of the Enlightened influence in my area and connect several of the portals in Marblehead to create the necessary control fields that are then shown on the display of the Ingress app:

Control Fields in Marblehead

As I leveled up, I was able to create more powerful portals that allowed linkages over several kilometers distance and so I used Black Friday for some further excursions into Salem as well as trips to Swampscott and Nahant that allowed me to create a much larger field to protect all the inhabitants in my immediate vicinity:

Larger area control fields

Now it is only a matter of time until the Enlightened students at MIT try to increase their influence further north and will begin their attack on the North Shore. I am sure a battle of epic proportions will ensue in the days to come:

Larger Boston Area Intel

Ingress is extremely well done for a beta version of a game. I can only assume that Google has done some extensive internal testing before opening up the beta to people outside. And the combination of GPS, mapping, the historical marker database, and the many different web properties (see list below) combine to provide a truly addictive game-playing experience.

Even before you get immersed in the actual gameplay - and while you anxiously await the arrival of your invitation to participate in the beta - there are several websites that provide hints at the background story, videos, and artwork by fictions characters that appear to exhibit signs of Shaper influence.

One can easily see how Google's Project Glass will be used in a future version of this game that takes augmented reality game-play to a whole new level…

Obviously, there are also some privacy implications in such kind of gameplay and several bloggers have already questioned Google's motives in creating this game. Allegations range from creating an optimized database of walking paths for further enhancing Google Maps to more sinister data collection for advertising purposes.

Be that as it may, for the time being I will continue participating in the beta for a very simple reason: the game is actually a lot of fun to play!

Further information on Ingress can be found here:

Also see blog posts on AllThingsD, Engadget, pandodaily, The Verge, TechCrunch, and others…

P.S. Don't ask me for an invite, as I don't have any to give away, sorry!

Samsung Galaxy S III vs. iPhone 4S - a phone-swap experience

I am always on the look-out for the newest gadgets and best technology for my own personal and business use, so when the Samsung Galaxy S III started shipping in the US this month, I pre-ordered a Verizon 4G LTE model in white with 32 GB and it arrived Monday last week. I set myself the goal of doing a "phone-swap" and using the new phone exclusively for one week to determine whether it could replace my iPhone 4S as my primary smart phone device. Having all of my data in the cloud already through a combination of Google Apps, DropBox, Evernote, and our corporate email system, setting up the S III was a breeze. All I had to do was configure my Google and Exchange server accounts, download the DropBox and Evernote apps, and I was ready to go with all my calendar, contacts, notes, to-dos, emails, etc. 100% in sync on the new phone. In addition I installed Google Voice and Skype for my telephony needs as well as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for social networking. The next step was to go through all the other apps on my iPhone that had accumulated over the past year and determine which ones I really used more than once a month. That in of itself was a true cleansing ritual and I was able to get rid of a lot of junk (yes, I do admit that I actually played all levels of Angry Birds Space when it came out). And I was pleasantly surprised to find that about 95% of the apps I actually used were available on the Android platform as well. For convenience, I arranged them in a similar manner with folders so that I would be able to easily locate each app on both devices: 2012 07 15 10 51 18 cropped For the few apps that I did not find in the Google Play app store (or other app stores) I was able to easily locate an equivalent replacement app with only two exceptions. More on that later… With all these preparations done in the first day, I was ready to embark on my one-week phone swap test and redirected my iPhone phone# to the Galaxy, as well as including it in my Google Voice list of active phones. The second day held three interesting surprises for me in stock and I was actually quite disappointed with the Galaxy at the end of that day. The issues that I encountered were the following:
  • Battery Drainage: Within only 2-3 hours the battery on my S III had gone from 100% down to 48%. I was only using the phone to play with apps and was on my home Wi-Fi network, so this should not have happened. However, I later found out that the severe battery drain was caused exclusively by a very poor cell phone signal at my location and the phone trying to communicate with the towers despite the poor signal strength. When I used the same phone in the office the next day, where we have good cell phone reception, the battery was still at 79% in the late afternoon.
  • No German Keyboard: For some reason Samsung had decided to only ship English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese keyboards in the S III. I was, therefore, unable to compose any e-mails or text messages in German.
  • IPv6 Connectivity Problems: On my home network I already use IPv4 and IPv6 in a dual-stack setup and all my laptops, PCs, Macs, and iOS devices automatically get both an IPv4 and IPv6 address. Then, when communicating with an IPv6 enabled web site they already do that via IPv6, which can be easily verified using the test-ipv6.com site. However, the S III was unable to pass that test and could only use and IPv4 address and thus was unable to reach any IPv6 website. Samsung tech support proved to be highly incompetent in this regard an had absolutely no idea how to fix this problem (or even understand what IPv6 is).
However, on the third day I was able to resolve two of those issues and things were looking much better thereafter: The battery problem is strictly a result of bad cell phone coverage, and we had seen a similar problem with the iPhone about a year ago, so I expect Samsung to fix this shortly. Furthermore, when I am at home I plug my phone in anyway, so the lack of cell phone signal at home and the resulting battery drainage can easily be circumvented. But the battery meter makes it very clear how bad the problem is, if you look at this screen shot taken 1 hour and 15 minutes after taking the phone out of the charger and not using it at all. In that time it has already lost 11% of its charge doing absolutely nothing: Battery drain due to bad cell reception The keyboard issue was easily fixed by installing Swype Beta for Android. Swype is an alternative keyboard that not only supports multiple languages (including German), but also provides a much faster input method for text, because it lets you trace the letters of a word on the on-screen keyboard without lifting your finger, which is indeed much faster than tapping each key individually. Furthermore, it comes with a vast dictionary for each language and really recognizes your movements with amazing accuracy. Quick wcl The remainder of the week progressed on a very upbeat note and I really enjoyed my usage of the Galaxy S III after I had overcome those small initial setbacks. In particular, these are the features and app experiences I liked most:
  • Swype: this is really a powerful productivity tool and I found that text entry speed for me improved by about 50% compared to the standard on-screen keyboard.
  • Larger screen: I really like the screen size and form factor of the S III. The larger screen size directly translates to 30% more emails visible in GMail as well as better browsing experience in Chrome and other apps.
  • Much deeper integration with Google Voice: I've been using a Google Voice phone number as my primary phone number for several years now, and the Google Voice app for Android provides a much deeper integration with the telephony module on the phone than iOS would allow. In particular, it is possible to set up the phone so that all outgoing calls are automatically routed via Google Voice, which is brilliant.
  • Background apps: It has always been an annoyance for me to no end, that on iOS there is no facility for true background applications. For example, DropBox on Android really uploads photos in the background whenever I am connected to my home Wi-Fi network, whereas on the iPhone I have to actually go to the DropBox app to trigger the upload. Similarly Skype works much better on Android than it does on iOS.
  • Auto-update of apps: I love the fact that I can configure my apps to automatically update on Android. Whenever I am connected to my Wi-Fi network at home, all apps get their updates and I don't have to do anything. By contrast, on my iOS devices I have to go to the App Store and manually hit Update and then enter my password.
  • Google Voice Search: Maybe it is just me (and my German accent), but Siri and I never developed a true relationship. I found that for many queries on Google Voice Search I can actually get better results and faster responses than with Siri, and it seems that I am not alone in this observation.
  • 4G LTE: it is truly remarkable how much faster the 4G LTE data network is. Similar to what I had previously reported with respect to the iPad 3, the 4G LTE data speed on the S III makes a huge difference, if you are inside the LTE coverage area. Reading emails and news, browsing web sites, etc. is just lighting-fast.
  • Face Unlock: OK, unlocking your phone automatically via face recognition is really cool. It may not be super-secure, but you can always combine it with PINs etc. And it is really nice when the phone recognizes its owner.
  • Widgets: Yes, it seems like such a small thing, but being able to see the local weather details, Wall Street Journal headlines, and latest Engadget news directly on my home screen really makes me happy.
Samsung Galaxy S III home screen In many respects, these positive experiences as well as the abundance of apps that are now available on both the iOS and Android platforms in parallel made it very clear to me that Apple is about to lose its competitive edge in the smart phone business soon, if it hasn't already happened. Either platform allows you to be productive and connected in this mobile world and the differences are becoming more and more a matter of personal taste. Talking of which, in the past week I found that these are the iOS features that I missed the most and where I was unable to locate any reasonable equivalent on the Android platform:
  • iCloud backup: I found it truly astonishing, that Google would not think of providing Android users with a true cloud-based backup solution for their phones. Backup functionality is limited to calendar, contacts, and emails, and if you want to be able to backup your entire phone (including photos and all apps) you have to do so on an SD card, connected computer, or you have to hack your phone to get root access in order to use a backup app like Titanium Backup.
  • iMessage: being able to save on SMS costs by sending text messages via the data network in the form of iMessage was a game changer when it was first introduced on iOS. While there are some apps that promise to do the same on Android, the real killer-app feature of iMessage is that it is transparently integrated into the messaging app, so it will try to deliver a message via iMessage if it can, but will automatically revert to sending it via SMS when it cannot do so.
  • Find-my-phone: The ability to go to the iCloud website, and trigger a loud sonar-ping from your phone (irrespective of what the sound volume is set to) is a feature that we often use in our family to locate missing phones. And no, just calling the phone doesn't work, because they or often set to just vibrate.
  • Different notification sounds: On my iPhone I use different notification sounds for SMS vs. emails vs. voice mails etc. and I found no good equivalent that would let me configure this in a similar way.
  • Clear OS upgrade path: This is perhaps the biggest weakness of the Android platform at this stage. The Nexus 7 is coming out with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and there is no clear path that would let me know when I can expect to get 4.1 on my S III. There are so many different devices and variations and the fact that both device manufacturer and phone network provider add their own variations to the base OS results in a plethora of different versions of the OS. And after a while people realize that their 2-year old smart phone suddenly will either not get the latest version of Android or will get it with a substantial delay.
In addition to these platform differences between iOS and Android, I also found that I could not locate either one of the following apps, which I love and use on iOS on a daily basis: Dark Sky is a hyper-local short-term weather prediction software that allows me to predict rain within the next hour with super-accurate precision based on analysis of the weather radar. For boaters (and fireworks committee chair people) this is an absolute must-have. The second app is g! Mobile, which is part of my smart home system that lets me control HVAC, audio, video, irrigation, pool, and various other home automation systems from my phone. Last, but not least, here are four more observations that - when taken together with the above features and apps that I am missing - end up tilting the balance in favor of the iPhone from my perspective:
  • Battery drainage in areas of bad cell-phone coverage: While I was initially happy to accept this limitation based on the thought that (a) it would only occur at home and (b) would soon be fixed by Samsung, I have since then experienced this battery drainage repeatedly while underway. In all cases it was connected to poor cell-phone coverage, but that is just the reality of the networks today and I experienced battery drain while being out on the boat in Massachusetts Bay as well as while having dinner at Woodman's in Essex.
  • Larger screen not as useful as initially thought: despite the larger screen, there are several limitations built into Android that make things look quite ugly over time. For example, you get the same layout of 4x4 apps, folders, or widget space only, even though the screen should easily be able to accommodate more rows or columns. And even inside apps like Facebook or Skype or Twitter, the usage of the extra screen real estate is not efficient. By contrast, on the iPhone you get a smaller device yet makes better use of the screen real-estate and due to the high-resolution Retina display looks a lot sharper.
  • Verizon has much less real-world data coverage than AT&T: Yes, this is clearly a criticism that has nothing to do with Android vs. iOS, but the reality is that while 4G LTE is beautiful and fast wherever it is available, the second you move out of the core coverage area the Verizon CDMA network is really vastly inferior than AT&T's GSM network. And I found in my testing that I got a lot better and more consistent data coverage on my iPhone, for example out on the boat or away from the city.
  • IPv6 support not working properly: now that IPv6 is permanently activated since the World IPv6 launch day in June this year, I think it is quite astonishing that Samsung would introduce a device that is not capable of getting an IPv6 address or communicating with IPv6-only websites. And talking to Samsung tech-support via website chat and email revealed another weakness: there is no good and knowledgable technical support available. While it is true that the "geniuses" at the Apple "Genius Bar" are not always brilliant either, at least the Apple website and support forums provide the in-depth technical information and I had been able to solve every technical problem there in the past. By contrast, the Samsung website doesn't even have any reference to IPv6 at all.
So after a week-long phone swap, here is my conclusion: for now I'm switching back to my iPhone 4S for daily usage, but I'm really hopeful that future innovation on the Android platform with 4.1 Jelly Bean will close the gap even further and I'm looking forward to repeating this week-long test at that time. I also have a Nexus 7 tablet coming this week and look forward to experimenting with that. At the same time I hope that Apple won't stand still and will surprise us all with new innovative features in their iPhone 5 product this fall, including a larger-screen device. Long-term, I hope that Apple will finally become a more open platform. The ability to replace keyboards and use Swype, the ability to deeply integrate with the telephony capabilities - those are all huge advantages that Android has right now and they will eventually give Android the edge over iOS, if Apple sticks to the closed platform model forever. We've seen this happen before in the 80s with Windows vs. the first generations of MacOS and history is bound to repeat itself - especially now that Apple no longer has its charismatic leader and his reality-distortion field. Bottom-line: if you are looking to buy a new smart phone right now, the Samsung Galaxy S III is a really nice device and as long as you live in a city with great 4G LTE coverage, everything should be fine. It boils down to personal preference in the end. However, if you have been using iPhones for the past couple of years, there is no convincing reason to switch.

Google Voice Review

Google announced Google Voice today, it quickly became the top story on techmeme.com, and as an existing GrandCentral user for the past two years my account was immediately upgraded today, so I am in the lucky position to be able to provide you with an actual in-depth personal review of the new features in Google Voice.

Before we begin, let me say that I already liked GrandCentral a lot. In fact, for the past year I've only given out my one GrandCentral number to all business contacts - and it is the only number that is printed on my business cards. The most important aspect of GrandCentral for me was that with just one phone number to give out to people, they could reach me on any of the following four physical phones: office phone, iPhone, second line at the home phone, and my car phone. And I would get my voice mail in my e-mail inbox. Those two features alone made GrandCentral the best telephony solution for me.

But Google Voice takes it to a whole new level:

Google Voice Inbox

Not only has the web-based UI been completely redone (and now perfectly fits into the GMail and other Google App paradigm), but there is a host of new features that Google Voice has added to the mix, which are all quite amazing:

Voicemail Transcription

Without any doubt this is the coolest feature in the book. Every new voicemail is automatically transcribed into text and delivered to your Google Voice inbox as well as your e-mail inbox. While this feature can be turned off, I have no idea why anybody would want to do that. In fact, this is the biggest time saver ever. I am a big e-mail person, and I do in fact prefer e-mail over voice mail, because I can scan an e-mail inbox much quicker and pick out the relevant and important messages, than I can scan my voice mail system. Now, every voice mail is just another e-mail and can be scanned as rapidly as other messages.

How accurate is the transcription? Well, this is the first version of Google Voice with transcription, so my expectations weren't too high. In fact, when I recorded a test message with some background noise, the transcription came through with quite a few errors, but - in my opinion - that doesn't impact the usefulness of this feature at all. I don't expect to not listening to the voice mail - all I want is the ability to quickly scan through a full inbox and identify the important messages, and for that purpose the accuracy and quality of the transcription is easily sufficient.

One interesting aspect is that in the Google Voice web-based UI the confidence of the transcription is indicated by a change in the text color (see above screenshot), and the words in black were indeed all correct. This is a very helpful way to present the transcription. However, when you look at the same message in your Outlook inbox, that information is presently lost and the whole transcription appears uniformly in black font:

Google Voice Transcription

SMS Support

This may sound trivial, but is really important. The Google Voice phone number now supports SMS text messages. In the past, when I gave people my GrandCentral number as the only phone# they would ever need for me, they often tried to send SMS to that number, since they assume it is a cell phone number. With Google Voice this finally works. Yay! You can also send SMS through the web interface, and you have access to a full log of incoming and outgoing SMS through the UI:

Google Voice SMS log 
Conference Calling

Another useful feature is the ability to do instant conference calls. Instead of having to provide people with a dial-in number and access code for a conference calling system, I can now set up a conference call and simply ask all parties to call my Google Voice number. Once I am on the call with one person and the second caller dials the same number, I can simply press '5' and connect them to the same call. This is incredibly useful, since I can never find my wallet-card for our corporate conference calling system anyway.

International Calls

Google Voice also offers international calls now, and the process to load some money into your voice account is pretty easy. In my case, since I already have a Google Checkout account associated with my credit card, it was literally a matter of just 2 clicks to transfer $10 from my credit card into the Google Voice account. I was then able to place an international call to a colleague in Vienna, Austria, by using the Call button in the web interface and the call was immediately established (by ringing one of my phones first, then the other phone). A female computer voice informed me that the charge for this call would be 19¢ per minute, and I was connected right away. The voice quality was quite good, although the connection was a bit choppy on one of the test calls - something that is typical of most VoIP systems. After the completion of the call, it immediately shows up in your outgoing call log with the cost of the call, and any call that is not answered is also not charged - here is the call log after three international test calls I made, including a nice 6 minute conversation with my dad:

Google Voice Placed Calls

The same rate of 19¢ per minute was charged to both calls to a mobile number in Austria and to a land-line number, which is a bit unusual and appears to be different for other European countries. However, it is still quite a bit cheaper than the $1.49 that Verizon is charging per minute, or the $1.70 that AT&T is charging. In fact, it is probably more akin to Skype costs. However, both Verizon and AT&T offer a world-wide value calling plan that charges a monthly fee of $3-5 and then the rate drops to 9¢ per minute. Bottom-line: if you make the occasional international call, Google Voice is a very good deal, but if you need to make calls to one particular country frequently it may still make sense to check with your land-line provider to see if you can't get a calling plan that gets you a rate that is even lower. Of course, Google Voice is fully integrated with Google Contacts, so you can type a name into the "Call" or "SMS" box and it will present phone numbers from your contacts. Likewise, if you go to the Contacts tab in Google Voice, there are now "call" and "sms" buttons next to each phone# stored for any of your contacts.

Call Widgets

While the old GrandCentral system already had a web-call button, the new Call Widgets in Google Voice make it even easier to add a "Call Me" button to your blog. In fact, there is one on the right sidebar of this blog, so if you want to talk to me, feel free to use that (no prank calls, please!).

 

To sum it up, I'm very happy about these new features. It makes a service that was already invaluable even better. And with the new calling and conferencing features, all I can say is: good-bye Skype, hello Google Voice!

3G FemtoCells to provide iPhone service in AT&T dead zones

AppleInsider reports that AT&T will launch a new device that people can install at home to create a FemtoCell (a very very very small cell) on the AT&T 3G cellular network that can service 10 phones with up to four simultaneous voice or data connections. Exactly what the modern family with four iPhone users needs!

Cellular Network

The idea is that you buy the Femtocell home base station, connect it to your broadband Internet connection or home network, and register all the 3G devices that you will permit to use the Femtocell (so that your neighbor doesn't get a free ride). The device then creates a 5,000 square foot hot-spot for 3G service in your house. Just as with picocells and full scale cellular antennas, a femtocell automatically passes a mobile user's phone connection to the next nearest existing cellular towers as they leave the local signal area provided by the base station. So when you leave your house and get out of the dead zone, you should be picked up by the nearest cell tower automatically.

My guess is that this device will sell like hot cakes in Marblehead and Swampscott, which have historically been experiencing enormous dead zones on the 3G network in the past.

More discussion about this new feature is also on techmeme.com.

New Microsoft 2D barcode released at CES

In a surprise move Microsoft released a new 2-dimensional barcode format today at CES. Yes, a barcode. The lines that are on the bottom of your milk carton, when you scan it at the supermarket checkout. And no, today is not April Fool's.

Two-dimensional barcodes are nothing new, and are most often seen on attendee badges at conferences or trade shows, but Microsoft's format is the first to use color and to be aimed at a specific reader device that most people already own: a cell phone with built-in camera.

The system is called Microsoft Tag and the idea is that you can encode URLs, vCards, phone numbers, or any arbitrary text in such a tag. The user then needs a reader application on their cell phone - and those are available already for all major cell phone platforms, including Symbian, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, and Blackberry - and once they scan the barcode, they get the encoded contact, are redirected to the website with the specified URL, or can call the encoded telephone number, without having to enter that number or URL or contact info into their cell phone manually.

MissionKitBarCodeFor a quick demonstration, download the beta version of the reader from http://gettag.mobi and install it on your cell phone, then use it to snap a picture of this barcode on the left and it will take your mobile browser to retrieve product information about the Altova MissionKit for Software Architects from our website. Clearly, it doesn't make sense to use these in a blog, but imagine reading an article about the software in a developer publication and being able to go directly to the website without having to type in a URL...

Btw, if you are using an iPhone, you can get the reader application through the familiar AppStore on your iPhone by searching for "Microsoft".

Microsoft envisions that such tags could in the future be printed on business cards, shown in print ads,XMLAficionadoBarCode on billboards, or even shown on TV, and the system is supposedly so flexible that it can deal even with out-of-focus or tiny versions of these barcodes. Hmm, so I created a new tag already for the URL of this XML Aficionado blog, and now I need to think where I should affix this to - maybe I'll print a T-Shirt with this new design and will wear it at the next conference I go to...

Further information and other blog reactions can be found on TechMeme.

iPhone browser traffic disproportionate to market share

I've said it all along - the iPhone's UI and especially the Safari browser on the iPhone are a quantum-leap over existing other smartphone technologies (e.g. Windows mobile, Symbian, Blackberry).

The NY Times has an article today on iPhone traffic on Google and confirms this by stating that despite a market-share of only 2% (compared to 63% for Symbian and 11% for Windows Mobile) the majority of mobile browsing traffic on Google over Christmas came from iPhones - that is simply astounding: more than 50% of the traffic from iPhones that have only a 2% market share!

The article also cites an analyst opinion:

"The iPhone has taken the frustration out of browsing on a mobile phone, said Charles Wolf, an analyst with Needham & Company."

Related discussions and other blog links can be found on TechMeme, as well as in previous iPhone-related posts on this blog...

iPhone vs. Windows Smartphone

Which one is "better" - the iPhone or the Windows Smartphone? That's the question that many gadget-loving road warriors and cell-phone geeks are asking these days...

Here is my personal take:

I've been a big proponent of smartphone technology for a long time, and have been chasing the "perfect smartphone" for a while. Specifically, I've been hooked on using Windows Smartphone devices, because of the seamless integration with Outlook and the resulting automatic synchronization of all my contacts, calendar entries, tasks, notes, and e-mail over the air. And my favorite Smartphone so far was the Cingular/AT&T 8525. To meet a new business partner on the road, enter their contact details into the smartphone, and find the same person automatically in Outlook when you get back to the office is simply great - same goes for calendar entries.

So when my wife wanted a new iPhone when it came out, I was very sceptical. Sure, I do use an iPod Video and have been a big fan of the early Macs from 1986-1996, but I could no conceive of how the iPhone could offer anything to me - especially since my AT&T 8525 device had it all: UMTS, Wi-Fi, Push-Email, Windows-based Smartphone, PDF Reader, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Video, etc.

It took just one week.

I played with her new iPhone while we were in New York. I played with her new iPhone at home. I played with her new iPhone on the boat. After a few days she said "Buy your own iPhone!"...

So I did (at the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in NY) and I haven't touched the Windows Smartphone since.

The reason is very simple: UI design, UI design, and UI design! Just like with any great piece of software on the computer, it all boils down to the design of the user interface. Apple has managed to pack the essential applications into the device in such a way, that I actually started using them. Sure, the Windows Smartphone had a browser (Pocket IE), but it pales in comparison to the Safari browser that comes with the iPhone. Integrating Google Maps into the iPhone was a stroke of genius - it's so easy to use that I actually use it. Technically, I could have used it on the Windows Smartphone, and I even did once or twice. But I use it on the iPhone on a daily basis: to find a restaurant, get the phone number for a school, get the doctor's number, or just look up the way, if the car GPS is confused again (which happens a lot in Boston!).

E-Mail connectivity with our corporate Exchange server works great, and the difference between Push-Email and email that gets polled every 15 minutes is unnoticeable in reality.

Sure, I'm missing out on over-the-air synchronization of my contacts and calendar at the moment, but Apple has already licensed ActiveSync from Microsoft, so it's only a matter of time, before that will work on the iPhone. And until then I happily plug my iPhone into the laptop once a day to sync my contacts and calendar.

Bottom-line: even though the Windows Smartphone has some technological advantages (UMTS, Push-Email, over-the-air sync), the iPhone wins this comparison easily with the best UI design I've ever seen on a mobile phone plus it's 1/4 the thickness of the Smartphone and has a much larger screen!

Here's another reason why this XML aficionado likes the iPhone: it's all Web 2.0 based and you know what that means. Yup, it's using XML to talk to the servers!

UPDATE: Apple just annouced that the iPhone price has been reduced by $200 - what are you waiting for - go and get your iPhone now!