Friday, May 16, 2008

Making the switch to computer-based calling

I have been a user of Vonage for my main business line for at least four years and mostly a happy customer. But a series of anticipated moves this summer got me thinking: do I really need this service any longer? And so I have come up with a rather strange plan, so stick with me here for a minute while I explain how I got to my post-VOIP mobile telephony world.

I spend about $60 a month for my business telephone service: half on Vonage, half on AT&T for providing DSL service to my home (which I share for both home and business connectivity). This summer I will be moving across town and splitting off my office into a separate location. First I thought I would just get a cable modem and move the Vonage box and line over to run on that. That is the beauty of tying your business line to a VOIP service: it can move with you. Plus, with the cable downloads at 10 Mb, I can get those mission-critical movies and other image files that are so important to my day-to-day work life.

But the more I pondered that situation, the more I thought I would be better off if I got one of the AT&T broadband PC modems and used my computer for all my outbound calls. The modems are free with rebates and a two-year service plan, and you pay $60 a month for unlimited Internet access. Some of them are USB so can work with desktops, laptops, Macs or Windows. This is the same $60 a month that I was paying for my business line. The downside is that I won't get anywhere near 10 Mb downloads, but that might cut back on the opportunities to view unneeded visual content.

I am already a big fan of Skype, and they offer an unlimited Skype Out subscription for less than $3 a month to everyplace that I would call with the Vonage account for the most part (you can get more expensive packages if you want to call international places). You can also purchase an inbound number for Skype for a few more dollars a month, but the number of people calling me doesn't justify this, yet.

There are a couple of important caveats to note here. First, I make a lot of calls to conferencing services, so I need to be able to continue to dial touch tones after the initial call goes through. With Skype, this isn't a problem: you get a cute little keypad that you can type in your conference number and PIN and away you go.

Second, more importantly, I no longer will be using the actual telephone that has been sitting on my desk for the past 16 years. Granted, this phone has been in many difference cities, and at the beginning of its life was used on New York Telephone where I was paying something like two cents a minute for local calls. The more I thought about my solution, the more I began to miss this old friend and desk totem. As a friend of mine said, it is like you have to clean out the last boxes from your old bedroom at your parents' house. I will miss the concept of this old Ma Bell ringy-dingy most of all -- even though it doesn't serve any current purpose in my new post-VOIP life.

I don't mind the headset, and in fact I have a whole passel of Bluetooth headsets that should work on my Mac and Windows PCs for the calls, if I don't want to use the wired one.

But the third issue is the most important one. To make this trick work, I would need to port my existing Vonage number over to one of my wireless phones. The only way to know if you can do this is to go into an AT&T company-owned store (there are other franchise stores that look exactly the same so it pays to call their support line and find out) and ask them if it is eligible for porting.

I called my local AT&T store and first was told they couldn't port any Vonage numbers. Then after I persisted, they said I could and just stop by. So far so good.

So what I have in mind is extreme mobility: I should be able to make calls anywhere I have my laptop, as long as I have AT&T broadband service (which should be in most of the major cities I am in). This also has the extra advantage that I am not trying to find Wifi service or have to pay extra when I am in a hotel or airport, because usually those places have wireless broadband. If not, I can use my cell phone, which will be my primary business line. And under the worse case scenario, I can carry an Ethernet cable (remember those) and a phone card and use a payphone!

I am interested in your experiences with the AT&T broadband PC cards, so leave a comment on my blog if you don't mind. Do you think I am crazy, to contemplate doing this? I think it is kinda exciting.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Choosing the right email listserv

Choosing the right email listserv

I am doing a seminar tonight here in St. Louis that talks about how to use blogs and other Internet tools for self-published authors. And one of the first things that I wanted to talk about has to do with email lists. Ironic, but the underpinning of Web 2.0 is something so old that we take it for granted.

Email is at the core of just about anything else that you do on the Web: it is the primary notification mechanism for Facebook et al. when you make changes to your site. It is the way these social sites find your network of contacts, and the way that you keep your audience informed of what you are doing, too. You can have the best Web site going, but you need to remind people about what you have on it. Ironically, that was the original reason that I started Web Informant lo' those many years ago.

Why bother with an email list when you can just send out a bunch of emails from your desktop? Several reasons: First, you get a more professional means of communication that can manage all the bounces and mistaken reply-to-everyone situations. Your desktop program isn't designed to send out a message to hundreds or thousands of recipients either, while the list servers are. You also don't have to reveal all your subscribers in the "To:" field, which I still see from certain PR people. (Hey, thanks for sending me your contact list! I will be sure to take note of whom you think are my colleagues.) Finally, a list server or list provider can manage unsubscribes automatically, as well as post your messages in an archive that is available online for anyone to review.

Over the years I have used many different technologies to maintain this humble email list, so I have had some experience with the technology. If you are starting a new list, you have three basic choices: the free, the cheap, and the pricey. While price alone is a good way to decide, there are some other reasons that are less obvious. Let's talk about a few typical providers for each category: Google and Yahoo Groups (free), Mailman hosted by for $4 a month and iContact. If you don't want to read how to do this and want to watch one of my screencast videos that actually shows you the process, go on over to now.

No matter what method you choose, you will need to assemble all your email addresses that you want to start your list with. You can export these from your email program into a text file, and then bring up the file in a word processor program. The first time that you do this is painful, no doubt. You have to cull through all your correspondence, and I guarantee you that many of your addresses will be outdated, given how quickly people change jobs these days.

For free list servers, I like Yahoo Groups. It offers a lot of control, easy list management, and the Web-based control screens are easy to understand and figure out where things are located. There is one big downside, though -- the ability to set up large lists quickly. Yahoo only lets you add 10 people a day to your list without asking them to opt-in. To get around this, you can use Google Groups, which supports lists up to 500 names. Google Groups has fewer features though. I use Yahoo Groups for supporting many community lists that I maintain.

To get started, go to or and click on the create a new group button at the top of the page and fill out the form. You can cut and paste the email addresses from your master list right in the Web form and you are ready to go. With both Google and Yahoo, you have a few parameters that you want to make sure you set correctly in terms of who can join your list and how they see messages from you. I suggest you experiment with just a few names as a test before you add the entire list so you can get the hang of things.

Mailman is a more professional program and gives you all sorts of control over the message and recipients, and it is what I currently use for this list. I recommend the provider – there are others but they are more expensive. You need to obtain an account for $10, and this will give you access via the Web to a series of control screens, fill-in forms, and zillions of parameters. This is more complex than Google, but you have more control. As I said, each list only costs $4 a month to operate. You need to set up a subdomain that points to their list server, and you can usually do that with your registrar's control panels.

But this may not be fancy enough for your purposes. If you want to add Web links in your emails and track who clicks on which link, such as for promotional purposes, then you want iContact. I personally don't like rich HTML emails but I know many of you want this, so I mention it here. The cheapest plan is $10 a month for up to 500 names. If you have 2500 names, the fee increases to $30 a month. The more names, the more you pay a month. The advantage of iContact is that you can send out very snazzy emails, with pictures, color, and links to Web sites, and maintaining lists is all they do. You don't have to mess with setting up domains or servers, either. And like the others, everything is set up with a series of Web forms that are fairly easy, with lots of control over how the newsletter will look like.

So there you have it. Good luck with your list.

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.