Phone Call from Santa

December 21st, 2011

Is there somebody in your life who would appreciate a call from Santa Claus? Well it just so happens that the folks at Gmail can help you out with that. They've set up a direct line to the North Pole, where you can give Santa the info he needs to place a personalized phone call to that special someone. You'll be asked for some information about yourself and your recipient—names, relationship between you two, nicknames, phone numbers, and stuff like that. Once they've collected all that information, they'll pass it along to The Big Guy, and he will phone your recipient and wish them a festive holiday season. If you're arranging a call for a little one, you may want to do a "dry run" call to yourself first, so you can see if there is any of the message you'd like to cut off by hanging up before the "…brought to you by Gmail" mention at the end of the call.

Temporary Phone Numbers

October 4th, 2011

Just 'cause you're cleaning out your garage on Craigslist or you've agreed to meet that new guy/gal for coffee doesn't necessarily mean that you want to get phone calls from them for the rest of your life. In the World of Email, there are services that will provide you with throwaway email addresses–an email address you can use once, or just a few times, and then it goes away. You aren't giving up your privacy and security just so you can get rid of that old sweater or exercise bike.

RingShuffle is an app you can download onto your iPhone. Like that disposable email address, RingShuffle lets you create a throwaway telephone number. Create a new number and by default it goes away after seven days, although you can dial it up or down to change that life expectancy. When your customer (stalker?) calls your temporary number, it rings through to your phone, but without disclosing what your real number is. You get the job done, but without establishing a long-term relationship to solve a short-term problem.

Make free calls from your iPhone

April 15th, 2011

Everything costs too much. No matter where you go or what you do, somebody's got their hand out asking you for some more money. That's why people clip coupons, join membership stores, that sort of thing. That's also why services like Skype have taken off.

The notion of being able to make a phone call that doesn't cost anything is a popular one. Of course, to take advantage of this, you have to sign up, add contacts to your account, and a bunch of other housekeeping chores before you can start to make your calls. An alternative to this service is Viber.

Viber is a free service that lets you make VoIP calls from your iPhone to others who have the app installed on their phones. Rather than being completed as a "normal" call, Viber calls use your Wi-Fi or 3G connection to send your voice as data packets. Unlike Skype, Viber integrates with your iPhone's built-in contact management facility, so there's no re-entering contact info before you start making calls. In addition, all your Favorites, missed calls, and other good stuff are available through the app.

While Viber is only available for iPhone right now, the publisher promises that they're working on Android and Blackberry versions as well.

Make free phone calls via Gmail

March 31st, 2011

Along with all the other stuff you can do in the World According to Google, you can now make phone calls. While you may be used to searching the web, viewing breaking news, using Google Docs productivity tools, and of course taking advantage of the the omnipresent Gmail service, you can now make free phone calls.

To take advantage of this service, simply log into your Gmail account, open the Chat menu, and click on "Call phone". This service takes advantage of the Google Voice infrastructure to let you complete calls–free to US and Canadian numbers–right inside of Gmail. You do need to install the voice and video chat plugin for your browser, which is compatible with systems running Linux, Windows XP and later, and Mac OS X (Intel only, not PowerPC). Once you've done that, you can start making your free VoIP calls.

Google anticipates that this service will remain available (and free) through at least the end of 2011.

Voicemail without a phone

March 15th, 2011

Tired of making that important phone call, only to be sent off into voicemail oblivion? After all, if my call were that important, you would probably pick up, right? So how about avoiding the problem, by going directly to voicemail, even avoiding making the call in the first place.

Vocaroo is a free service that lets you send voice messages via email, without even using the phone. Just point your web browser to their site, record your message, and send it on its way. Your recipient receives an email with a link in it that takes them back to the Vocaroo site, and lets them play the message. Or if you want to reach a bunch of people, you can even post your message online and hand out the URL for folks to come by and listen to it.

To use Vocaroo you'll need a microphone and headphones or speakers for your computer, as well as having installed a recent version of Flash. Other than that, there's no cost for you to get your message out. There is no guarantee, of course, that anybody will call you back.

Practice safe phone

February 28th, 2011

We all know that it's not a good idea to make phone calls while driving; indeed, in many jurisdictions it's flat out illegal. The problem is, though, that it's just too easy, and maybe too tempting, to just reach out and touch someone while in the car. If you need a little help remembering, there's the Phone Condom.

This zip-up plastic bag comes pre-printed with messages like "Park Your Phone: Drive Your Car" to remind you of the potential for problems if you drive and talk. Created by Innocorp, Ltd, a Wisconsin company focusing on safety and prevention concerns, this is a low tech solution to a high tech problem. Sure, there's nothing to force you to stick your phone in the bag, but frankly anything that makes you less likely to make that call when you shouldn't is a good thing.

You can order a Phone Condom from their website for $1.99. While it's not free, if it helps keep you safer, it might be money well spent.

Warrantless search of cell phones

February 15th, 2011

If you're up to no good in California, or even if you're just concerned about your personal privacy, a recent Supreme Court ruling may be of interest to you. In the case, People v. Diaz, 165 Cal. App. 4th 732, the Court ruled that the police could search the cell phone of the accused without a warrant. While authorities have always been able to check an accused's clothing and personal possessions for the presence of weapons or contraband, this decision takes that search to a new level. For many people, the contacts, documents, text messages, and other data held in their smart phone makes it more like a briefcase than just an instrument to make phone calls on.

The Court's decision was not unanimous, and there has been a great uproar in the legal community about how this authority to search these devices squares with Fourth Amendment protections. The decision is expected to be appealed to the US Supreme court. In the meantime, if you're worried about the data in your phone, you might want to make sure you've password protected your information.

Free 411 Services

January 31st, 2011

All good things must come to an end. If you've become dependent on Google's GOOG-411, you know that it's gone the way of the dodo. What you thought was a nifty free service, was in fact an easy way for Google to grab samples of speech for its various voice recognition projects. Now that they've got all their samples, you're on your own trying to figure out who's where, which means you might be tempted to pay your carrier a boatload of cash for calling their 411 service. As it turns out, there are other places to look for this same information for everybody's favorite price: free.

Microsoft has their own voice recognition information system. You can reach their BING-411 service at 1-800-BING-411 (1-800-246-4411) or use CALL-411 (1-800-225-5411). Either way, you speak, they respond, and hopefully you get where you need to go.

Another option is the FREE-411 service. All you need to do is call 1-800-373-3411, listen to a brief ad, and you're on your way. If you like, they can text you with directions to where you're headed.

Make free VoIP calls locally and internationally

January 15th, 2011

Way back when, you needed a telephone to make phone calls. With the advent of Internet-based VoIP calling, all you need is to be able to go online and the world is at your beck and call. While there are several different ways to make calls via the Internet, they each seem to come with their own set of limitations. Whether it's a commercial service where you pay a monthly service fee like Vonage, or a system like Skype where you can call computer-to-computer for free but have to pay when talking to somebody on a telephone, there's always something.

EvaPhone lets you make free computer-to-phone calls domestically and internationally. All you need is a web browser, a relatively recent version of the Flash plugin, and a microphone and headphones. You don't even have to create an account or log in. Your phone call is limited in length, depending on the destination you're calling. These time limits vary by country and location, but I suppose at the price–did we mention it's free?–you can't complain too loudly.

Needless to say, these folks would love to have you upgrade to their paid service, which removes time- and other restrictions, but there's no reason why you can't continue to enjoy their free offering.

Where did I put that phone?

December 31st, 2010

If you're always on top of things, if you never misplace anything, if you know exactly where your cell phone is at all times, then you might as well not continue reading this.

For the rest of us, misplacing our mobile phone ranks right up there with the more frustrating things that we can do. You had it in your hand when you walked in the door, but when you put the grocery bag down on the counter, or tossed the keys on the table, or threw your jacket over the back of the couch, somehow your phone disappeared. So how are you going to find it now? It could be just about anywhere.

The aptly named I Can't Find My Phone is a free service that will give you a hand with this vexing problem. Go to their website, enter the number of your missing phone, and press the magic button. This free service will call your phone, and hopefully–unless you stuck it in the freezer with the ice cream–you'll hear your phone ringing, and the two of you will be reunited. Pick up and you'll hear a "thank goodness you found your phone" message, and all will be right with the world.

The folks at I Can't Find My Phone promise that they don't keep track of the numbers they call, and that you'll never, ever get any kind of spam from them.