Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Skype for iPhone: What's the point?

You've had a lot of questions about the new Skype for iPhone (download)--how it works and even why anyone would want to use it.
I'm going to answer some of the most frequently asked ones here, but if you've got more, you know what to do. Put 'em in the comments.
First of all, some context. Skype for iPhone is a voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, communications application that lets you chat with other Skype members for free, plus call landlines and mobile phones when you buy Skype Out credit. It is available in every country in which the App Store can be found, and it has already made a splash in the United States, Japan, and Europe.
Apple requires Skype and other voice applications to use Wi-Fi to place iPhone calls, not the hardware phone. Now without further ado:
1. If you've already got an iPhone, what's the point of having another calling application?
At least at first, Skype was primarily used to place international calls for free to other Skype users, or to landlines at a reduced rate on par with a calling card, for example. If you've got family and friends living abroad, the application's potential is a no-brainer.
Sure, you might not need to use Skype if everyone you know and love lives within a 500-mile radius of you. Yet users have already chimed in with examples of domestic uses, like if your home has a weak cellular signal but strong Wi-Fi; or if you eat through your free-talk minutes, a low-rate VoIP service like Skype will cost you less than the carrier's charge for each minute you go over your plan.
Also, don't forget that iPod Touch owners can use Skype and other VoIP applications (like Truphone and Fring) to make calls, even though the iPod has no telephone hardware--you just need earphones equipped with a mic.
2. If you're on the road, you still can't use your iPhone to make free calls with Skype, unless you can track down a Wi-Fi connection somewhere.
If you're in the United States, AT&T allows iPhone users free access to AT&T hot spots without incurring extra charges, though if you're attempting a call, you might not want to start it in the middle of Starbucks.
Also, even when you've got a laptop or desktop handy, and could use VoIP on the desktop, a calling client on the mobile phone gives you the freedom to wander. You won't be able to see your pals with the Webcam from the iPhone, though, so there is a trade-off.
3. Does Skype for iPhone use the native iPhone address book or a proprietary one?
Skype hooks into your iPhone's address book from the dialing screen so you can easily call a non-Skype buddy using Skype credit you've purchased. The Contacts screen shows your list of Skype contacts, and it's from here that you initiate a chat or call to Skype pals who aren't in the phone's address book.
4. Will Skype for iPhone notify me of missed messages or calls when I am running other apps, or when the iPhone is inactive?
Yes and no. You'll see notification circles of a missed message or call on the separate screens when you've got the app running, and again on the program icon, if you close the application with unread chats. Yet since Apple doesn't let you have more than one application running at a time with iPhone 2.0 software, you won't get an alert, if you're using another app and someone tries to reach you (you'll appear offline to them, anyhow.)
Even if you do see a notification alert on the program icon after you've closed Skype, the number of missed calls you see won't update to reflect the current number until you sign back into Skype.
5. Can you receive calls from your SkypeIn online number when you're in a Wi-Fi hot spot?
Yep. If you've already purchased a SkypeIn number, the service should work seamlessly on the iPhone without extra activation steps.
6. Do you need a headset to make a call?
On the iPhone, you'll be able to hold the phone up to your ear as you would when using the phone, though the application is also compatible with a headset and with speakerphone. Note, though, that you will need a microphone-equipped headset when using Skype with the iPod Touch.
7. Does the new Skype for iPhone allow you to make video calls?
No, it doesn't. This is a feature that Skype hasn't appeared to have figured out. The technology is out there, however. One company, iVisit, has been showing its video conference call technology for at least the last year. Rest assured, video Skype will be huge news when it comes out, on any mobile platform. Mobile video is so essential these days, that whichever VoIP app manages to get there first will undoubtedly get all the glory.
8. Can you also forward your mobile calls to your Skype-In number? If you can, presumably you can avoid time charges from your mobile carrier by making and receiving all calls with Skype as long as you're somewhere where you can get a Wi-Fi signal.
This wouldn't actually work in your favor on the iPhone if you intend to use the device for anything other than waiting to receive a call. Remember that Skype is only active when you're signed in, and cannot run in the background due to Apple's rules and regulations in its version 2.0 software. My impression is that most people will use Skype for iPhone to dial out, either when they've got a phone date planned, or when there's a chunk of free time to call a friend while out and about, perhaps while waiting at the airport, for example.
9. I want to consider using Skype, but I want to use it for calls when I'm in Italy--will it work from one location in Italy to another in Italy? And what number does the caller use to call me back, my U.S. iPhone number? If so, the caller would end up with international cell phone charges.
What I understand is that you have a U.S. iPhone and want to travel to Italy to make a call within Italy? AT&T would charge you an arm and a leg, so you want to use Skype over Wi-Fi to avoid those charges and to avoid buying a local or international phone card. If I got that right, in theory, you should have no problem initiating a call from Italy to an Italian landline (calls to mobile phones will cost more.)
The sticky spot comes when you want your pal to reach you. The most cost-effective solution is for your buddy to also sign up for Skype. Failing that, you could also pay for a Skype-In number for your friend to contact you, but see Question 8 for complications. If you want to be cost-conscious with your contact, I might try other communication avenues--instant messaging, IM, and e-mail, all which you can easily check on iPhone while doing other things. There's always the low-tech way of doing things--your contact e-mail or IMs you to let you know they're ready for that call.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Google improves Gmail for iPhone, Android

Google has released a new Web-based version of Gmail that gives iPhone and Android phone users a more sophisticated version of the online e-mail service, including access to messages that's faster and that works even when offline.
Google demonstrated the Web-based mobile version of Gmail last week and announced its availability Tuesday on the Google Mobile blog. "You'll notice that it's a lot faster when performing actions like opening an e-mail, navigating, or searching. And if the data network drops out on you..., you'll still be able to open recently read messages and to compose over a flaky, or non-existent, network connection," said Google mobile engineer Joanne McKinley.
Although the new features are interesting, and I find them a big step up, what's significant in the bigger picture is that Google has shown just how powerful mobile Web browsers have become, not just for surfing Web pages, but for running Web-based applications. This mobile Gmail application doesn't have to be downloaded through Apple's App Store or Google's Android Market; it works after you point the browser to
The fact that one Web site can support iPhone and Android today and likely the Palm Pre tomorrow is significant for Google: by putting the application on the Web, the company doesn't have to create separate applications for different devices, as it has with BlackBerry and Android already but not the iPhone.
The relative universality of the Web app sheds light on Google's motivation for supporting Android, too. Google has a strong interest in making mobile devices first-class citizens on the Internet, a move that ultimately will open up new advertising possibilities for the search giant.
New featuresThe new version is much more elaborate than its predecessor--though not so elaborate that there are ads, as in the regular version of Gmail. Among the new features:
• Multiple messages can be selected then archived, deleted, and marked as read, unread, or spam.
• A floating toolbar--the "floaty bar"--travels with the page as you scroll through a message or through an in-box with selected messages, letting you take various actions without having to scroll to the top or bottom of the page.
• A search button appears at the top of the screen for easier retrieval of older messages. Previously it was buried at the bottom of the in-box.
But the offline access is what sets the application apart. The application stores e-mail messages on the phone itself using the still settling-down HTML 5 standard for Web page design and, in Android's case, using Google's Gears browser plug-in.
Faster e-mailThat makes messages readable while offline. But it also makes reading messages faster, since they don't have to be retrieved over the network as long as they've been cached on the phone. I noticed a very significant speedup in use--once I endured an initial wait for synchronization while messages were downloaded.
"Gmail for mobile allows common actions such as archive and send to be completed much more quickly than previous releases. The first time you visit Gmail, you may notice that the start-up time is a bit slower than usual. This is because we are downloading required files over the network. However, once the files are downloaded, subsequent launches will be more consistent regardless of connection type," Google told me in a statement.
The offline mode let me compose a message and push the send button; when network access was restored, the Gmail application took care of actually sending it without any intervention on my part. Also while offline, I could perform a search I'd done recently online, though a new search required network access.
The biggest missing piece in my quick test was the ability to add labels to messages. That's in the works, Google said:
"The new architecture of the Gmail web app will allow us to roll out new features much more quickly. The ability to add a label is not available at this time, but it's coming soon," Google said. That statement intrigued me, because Google's 2007 Gmail overhaul for ordinary browsers produced a modular design that permits extensive customization through Gmail Labs.
The iPhone and Android versions of Gmail worked identically once I installed Gears on my T-Mobile G1 after being prompted by a "get faster Gmail" invitation. The iPhone version was more responsive, and both had an awkward time showing HTML-formatted e-mail.

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Rumble your numbers with LeapFrog's iPhone game

I've heard people say that two-thirds of Americans are not good at math and the other half just don't care. I totally agree, and we need to do something about this.
Apparently, the folks at LeapFrog think so, too. The company on Monday released its new game for the iPhone and iPod Touch called "Number Rumble" (hands-on review.)
This is the first in LeapFrog's planned series of learning games. Taking advantage of the multitouch technology, the application lets children spin and tap the devices to increase their math skills.
With the Number Rumble game, they can practice simple math skills in addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division by themselves or they can challenge friends. The game helps them memorize math basics through three modes of play:
Learn It mode lets the player spin the number wheels to create a math problem, then tap the equals sign to see and hear the answer. Quiz Time mode lets the player use their skills by choosing the problem type and spin the wheel to get a random quiz. Then they can shake the phone to select an answer. Random Quiz mode lets the player practice all four operations at once. For example, they can shake the iPhone to a fill-in-the-blank style questions, such as "13 + 7 = ?" or "? ? 2 = 11." and so on. Unfortunately, LeapFrog is not all about education, as it charges $2.99 for the application at Apple's App Store, which is rather expensive for a simple game. But at least as far as math is concerned, that's less that $3.