Friday, December 21, 2007

Using a cell phone overseas

If you are traveling overseas and don't want to pay a ton of money for your cell calls, this column is for you. I got started down this path because of some upcoming speaking engagements in Australia in the new year, and I wanted to be prepared and be in touch. Soon, it turned into A Project, and now I share the results with you, my gentle readers, for your own benefit should you find yourself in similar straights.

You have the following alternatives

- Buy a phone calling card once you get to your destination and use it from payphones or your hotel,
- Don't do anything and use your existing US phone,
- Buy a new SIM module for your existing phone, or
- Buy a new SIM module and a new phone.

Why bother? If you have ever taken your cell to Canada (or even further a field), you know why: the per-minute cost for calls is ginormous. And while it is nice to be in touch when you travel around the world, there are lower-cost ways to do it.

The calling card is a decent option, depending on where you are going and what your hotel charges for both toll-free and local calls. Some are still back in the profiteering stone ages and charge almost as much as the cell providers on a per-minute basis, even to make a local call or to connect to the calling card provider. You should know that some calling cards may not work with some pay phones, according to Dan Dern. He also reminds me that you might want to invest in a DMTF tone generator if you need to call back to a stateside answering machine – some foreign phones don't generate the correct touch tones. You can use the Java applet on your computer here.

The other options will only work if you have at least a tri-band phone on either T-Mobile or AT&T/Cingular networks. If you are using Verizon or Sprint, you need a new phone. Most of the world's cell phones (except in Japan and a few other places), work on what is called the GSM networks that operate at either 900 MHz or 1800 MHz. The US and Canada GSM networks operate at 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. So if you have a phone that can work on at least three of the four bands, you should be set to roam abroad.

So we arrive at the last options, and here is where things get interesting. Before I get any further, let me explain that your cell phone has two important pieces: one is the phone itself, and this makes a difference with the number of radio bands that it works on. But the second piece is the SIM card that is inside the phone, and if you are like most normal people you probably haven't given this little thing much thought – until now. This SIM card is what is used by the phone to store your address book and also gives your phone your inbound number and identity on the cell network. It is about the size of a microSD memory card.

If you replace the SIM card that came with your phone with a card that works in the country you are visiting, you get several benefits. First, you don't pay roaming charges for local in-country calls, although if you are calling back to the States, you will pay international long distance charges. Second, if people in-country are trying to reach you, they don't pay for the international calls either. (Some of the networks overseas have the more enlightened method of calling party pays, but we won't go there for now.) You also don't use any minutes on your American cell accounts, which can be good if you have a limited number of minutes – when you travel, you don't think about all the time you are on calls. The trouble is if you are going to several different countries, then you need different SIMs and have to keep track of the numbers too. That gets onerous.

So there is another solution: buy a SIM card from This Irish vendor offers a universal SIM that will work across the globe, and has lower per-minute rates no matter where you are. Plus, like the VOIP services, you can set up your number to automatically forward to a series of numbers, so that you can be more easily reached as you travel. You don't have to sign a contract, the SIMs are inexpensive (about $43), and you can add more minutes to your account easily over the Web and charge your credit card. It took me a few minutes to setup and activate the SIM online: you pick a US-based number for your phone, and pay for another number in the country or countries that you are visiting. They have a wide selection. Each additional number is just a few dollars per month to maintain.

There is just one catch. Chances are, your cell phone is locked to your carrier that you are currently using. This means if you try to take out your SIM card and replace it with this Maxroam card, your phone won't work. You might be able to receive calls, but not make outgoing calls.

So how do you get your phone unlocked? You can pay for a special code that you enter and here is where things get dicey. Until recently, American cellular carriers claimed that unlocking was illegal. The laws are changing, but still many of the companies that provide this service have the feeling of going to the seedy side of town where goods are bought in cash through an open car window, not that I conduct my business in this fashion, you should know. There are a number of unlocking providers, here are just a few and what they charge per phone to unlock:

- $15
- $25
- $20
- $13
- $20
- $25

I have tried a few of these, and haven't had good experiences. All of them work by first charging your credit card the fee, and then sending you the code via email. Sometimes they take their sweet time in sending this code. Uniquephones "lost" my order, and only when I emailed their executives and spoke to them personally (they are based in the UK), did I get my code delivered.

There are other services that have downloadable software, but that seems even more trouble. Once I got my code, it took seconds to enter it on my AT&T phone, and it was running on T-Mobile's network with my new number from the Maxroam folks. Sweet.

If you are reluctant to do business in this fashion, then you have another option, and that is to still buy the Maxroam SIM card but get a new phone that comes unlocked. If you are a Verizon or Sprint user, this is really your only option. There are many Web sites that offer to sell you unlocked models. The least expensive phones that I could find (that were at least a tri-band GSM model) were on – they were selling a Motorola V180 for $50. And has a Motorola V220 for $70. Neither of these phones are going to win any design awards, but they will do the job.

Plan on taking a few weeks to negotiate all of these options, so don't do this a few days before you have to leave the country. And you might want to bring along your current SIM card, just in case.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Facebook vs. LinkedIn

The world of social networking is getting, well, more social. But I question whether it is also getting more open, at least with my understanding of what the word open means. And whether it is becoming more useful, at least for business purposes.Last week Facebook and Bebo (another network that is primarily UK-based) announced that the copious applications that were created on Facebook will now be able to run on Bebo, and soon other social network sites.

Also in the news, LinkedIn announced a beta version of its home page, which I almost missed because it is so much like its existing home page I am not sure what the fuss is about. They also have finally revived their Groups application and have made it easier for users to add a few applications too.So are we seeing more openness with these social sites, or just more vacuous PR-ware announcements that have little importance? A little of both.First, let's talk about what I think openness should be.

Ideally, I should be able to write an application to a published series of program interfaces, and be able to move data in and out of the social network site in a way that makes the most sense to me, the ultimate user. None of the sites come close to doing this right now.Let's just compare Facebook and LinkedIn and see where the stack up on the openness scale. Facebook has a published guidelines for how to build applications. As a result, there are thousands if not millions of apps that have been written, from the frivilous to the semi-useful. People try out apps when they see what their friends have done, because the proces of selecting an app is one of the notifications you can see on your news feed home page. As a result, these apps can get very viral and quickly gain traction. Or they can languish if you don't have the right A list friends to spread the word. Facebook apps are kind of like a trendy new nightclub: if you invite the right friends to come on the opening night, you are going to have a crowd lining up outside your door. These are the apps that are now going to be shared with other social networking sites like Bebo.

Ironically, Facebook is trying to prove to the world that they are more open than Google, who announced their own application interfaces under the "Open Social" name a few weeks ago. You could say that Facebook is trying to be like the Microsoft of the social networking sites, if Microsoft would ever open up some of its Windows programming interfaces. Or maybe they are just trying to not be evil. (Too bad they muffed that part with the various privacy issues, but that's for another column.)Open applications isn't the only metric of usefulness here.

Also important is how you populate your network on these sites. With Facebook, you can import your contacts to populate your list of "friends" from a variety of Web-based email services, including Gmail, Yahoo, and so forth. You can import contacts from a text file if you prepare it properly. However, once you contacts are imported and linked to your account, you can't export them or even figure out what someone's email address is if they have changed it, unless they tell you explicitly on their profile. LinkedIn doesn't have a set of apps guidelines yet, although they keep talking about it. They have similar contact import features to Facebook, although they will terminate your privileges if you send out emails to too many people that you reject your approaches,claiming they don't know you. The service does allow you to export your contacts anytime you wish, and in several nice formats too.Let's move to talk about groups of your contacts. Neither of them is as useful as they could be. Ideally, I would like a publishing system that I can alert all the people in that group with a single posting. Maybe it is because I have been publishing this Web Informant email newsletter for so long that I continually hope there will be something better than an email listserve to send it out. Facebook allows anyone to create a group on any topic. Many of them reflect the collegiate (or inane) demographics of their audience, and most of the people that I link to there are in a constant state of joining and unjoining various groups. It is easy to do both, and as a result group membership isn't really worth much, other that to keep track of which groups are popular among your friends, since the act of joining is what shows up on the home page "news feed" as individual events and again can be very viral. But since each individual has to take the action of joining a group, you can't set up a pre-populated group with all of your friends. You can send out notifications to all of your friends, but that isn't quite what I am talking about here.Facebook has this groups capability already built-in, there is no need to add an additional application and several business people have begun using Facebook as their primary communications mechanism in a one-to-many fashion. (Jeff Pulver, the VOIP impressario, is one of the more notable and public ones.)

As I said earlier, LinkedIn's Groups has been enabled in the past several weeks. You first have to get approval from the LinkedIn Police to create your group. This took me just a few hours. Then you have to invite people to join, but you can't just send out a notice to your existing LinkedIn network of people that you have identified. No, that would be too easy. There is a multiple-step, multiple-opt-in procedure before you can join my "Strominator" group, as an example. Go ahead, I dare you to try, you will see how tough it is.

I understand why LinkedIn is doing what they are doing, but it isn't going to work, and unless you have tremendous patience and are very detail-oriented, it is much easier to use something else to group your contacts, like an email listserve.

So here we are. A little more openness for social sites. Google is trying to get its own beachhead established, and while Facebook stumbles about with its privacy issues, they have the beginnings of something that can be used for ad hoc groups. LinkedIn is still too heavy-handed for my taste, which is too bad because we all have internalized the LinkedIn dance: Update your profile, ask for recommendations, then start looking for a new job. And in the meantime, we have newer social networking sites like Spock to deal with too. And do-it-yourself sites like that allow you to pretty much build your own network from scratch with very little programming skill.

Monday, December 10, 2007

F for fake

It is time once again to recap the fakery, hoaxes, and all-around trickery online over the past year. It seems like we have had an exceptionally busy one. Thanks to social networking sites, user-generated content, and increasing use of online by everyone over eight years old, we have plenty to write about this time around.

To start the creative juices flowing, I caught "The Hoax," the Richard Gere movie about Clifford Irving, one of the all-time great fakers (he faked a biography of Howard Hughes and sold it for millions of dollars, eventually winding up in jail). I couldn't help thinking as I was watching this movie (which of course plays very loosely with real events) how much easier Irving would have had it in the online era of today. Back in the 1970s, he had to get on planes and mail forged handwritten letters with real postmarks and such to disguise the fact that he never actually talked to Hughes. Today he could do the same thing in about ten minutes with a blog.

So the biggest news the past couple of weeks has been the Myspace teen suicide backlash taking place about 40 miles away here in Missouri. The suburban community passed a law making it a misdemeanor to harass someone online. Almost immediately we have a fake blog that purports to be the writings of the Drew family gathering hundreds of comments and fueling the vigilante fires even further. The story, for those of you that have been not online, is about a teenage girl named Megan Meier who killed herself last year over a series of fake Myspace postings from a boy that were actually written by Lori Drew and her older teenaged employee. Drew was a neighbor of Meier, and ironically the harassment law that was recently passed to punish her Myspace postings could be used to benefit her and punish her own blogging impostor. (You might need to re-read the above graf, I know it is a bit confusing.)

While this was happening, a friend of mine was telling me about how he was posing online as a woman, trying to ensnare a former employee of his who faked some reports and was never caught. Luckily, he doesn't live in any community that has any online harassment laws. Sadly, he thinks this is all le mot juste and his own version of online justice.

Back to the blogosphere, earlier this year we have Dan Lyons (with whom I once worked when we were both at PC Week back in the 1980s) outed for being the author of the "Fake Steve Jobs" blog and ensuing book tour. I hope some day I can aspire to be the author of a fake blog that will boost the sales of one of my books. (We assume that the royalty payments go to Lyons and not Jobs, but I haven't checked.) In the meantime, I will have to settle for being the real author of real blogs.

Lyons isn't alone, here is a list of several others.

Meanwhile, Steve Colbert's fake presidential bid is dead in the water as a result of his show being in reruns because of the writer's strike. The main point of contention of the strikers is how writers are paid for online works, which are supposed to be over real bylnes. Are you still with me?

And let's now forget earlier this summer with John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, who posted to Yahoo's financial Web sites using an alias. Mackey was outed in an FTC document, and it turns out he was writing these posts over eight years. Eight years! No mea culpa, either.

Here's hoping that you all have a really great holiday season, surrounded by the actual people that you know and love and care about, and that you can step away from the computer for a few minutes too.

N.B. For those of you too young to remember Irving contemporaneously, he also wrote a book about Elmyr de Hory, a noted art forger. Orson Wells did the movie version, which is where we get the title of today's post. Irving continues to sell copies of the "autobiography" from his Web site.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Encouraging St. Louis entrepreneurs

One of the best things about my job is that every day is different, and I get to meet with some interesting people all over the world that are doing cool stuff with computers. Lately, I have been spending time at home in St. Louis and enjoying not getting near any airplanes, and this past week have been at meetings with local entrepreneurs. It made me realize that sometimes you don't have to travel far to get to see some great stuff and meet fascinating people who are passionate about technology and working on innovative things.

Last night I was asked to be one of the judges in a competition hosted by Washington University's Skandalaris Center. They are an organization that promotes entrepreneurship and helps to mentor start-ups both with enterprising students and in the community. Every couple of months they host an "Idea Bounce" where budding CEOs-to-be have two minutes to pitch the idea behind the company. We as judges have just a few seconds to mark down our comments and grade the pitch on creativity, how good a presenter they are, and what kinds of resources and help they required to move their ideas forward.

Each evening has a very different collection of ideas, ranging from the mundane to the sophisticated. Five winners are selected by the judges and those five get a check from the university for $100 along with the chance to spend some time with the judges at dinner to get more feedback and advice. The best idea of the evening (at least by my vote) was something very simple and low-tech: a plastic cover for the urinal flush valve that could support a beverage cup. It is called a "beverage buddy" and already has two patents. I got to sit next to the inventor at dinner, along with another judge who is a patent lawyer – he was thrilled that the device already had been through the patenting process. There were other pitches that had merit too, including ones that involved social services, better nursing scheduling algorithms, and a wedding registry for grooms only.

The hard part about starting a new company isn't having a new idea – those are easy. It is knowing what you are good at doing, and what you lack, and how to connect with the right people, resources, and funds to realize your dream. While the Idea Bounce is just the first step in the process, it is an important one because it gives the inventor some basic direction and simple tools that they can use to flesh out their idea.

It was a fun evening, although we had a light turnout for the event because of our first light snow of the season. Anyone can attend for free – you don't have to pitch and can just be a spectator. Those of you that are local might want to put it on your calendar for 2008.

Then this morning I was off to the Missouri Venture Forum, another group devoted to helping start new businesses in the area. We got to hear from the principals at a new networking vendor that is based nearby called Global Velocity, who will be in production sometime early next year with a new networking product. The CEO proudly mentioned how most of his talent was home-grown, and they are planning on doing the fabrication right here in St. Louis.

So while we are a long way off from Silicon Valley, it is nice to see that we have such a rich incubation culture and plenty of resources to draw on here in St. Louis.

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.