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Entries in communications (1)

Monday
Feb112013

Getting Smarter with Ting

A Subjective History of Telephony

  • It used to be so simple when I was a kid. There was this big avocado green pod on a hall table with a wheel with holes upon it. An attachment the size of a banana with two tangerines attached to the end of it was to be lifted and placed near the ear when it rang, or while using one's finger to move the dial with holes in it.
  • Some years later the big pod part was dispensed with and the banana with tangerines grew some buttons and flattened out some.
  • Then it turned into something more like a big bar of soap with more buttons. It lost the wires to the wall. That was cool.
  • Then it found a buddy that buzzed with a little number in a little window, telling you to pick up the giant bar of soap device and use it to call someone back.
  • Then the bar became smaller. Some folded. Some slid. Some unfurled flaps with more buttons and screens for talking and sending messages so short that one longed for the old days when a dime would buy three minutes. A lot could be said in three minutes that couldn't be said in just a few words on a screen!
  • Then it all became like NASA's mission control. That's where we're at now.

I'm a bit of a heel dragger when it comes to technology. That might actually make me surprisingly average but it rarely feels like it at the time. It took until 2001 before I got my first computer (I'm on my third now). It took until Kelli and I got engaged in early 2004 before I got us cell phones (by that time, all the work I did in the entertainment industry was behind me for the most part, and that would have been the time to use a cell phone. People kept reminding me so.) Only about a two years ago did I turn on text messaging. (Prior to that I derided it as a far too expensive thing since I did not have a plan nor did I want to pay for one. Finally we found some loopholes.) And now, God help us, we have smart phones. Finally? Already?

Ting

It's not really for the love of fumbling with devices in public. I assure you if it were not for the plan we have just taken on with a new provider, this news would break much later than this. Finally, after observing smart phone data plans for nearly two years, watching the name brand providers and a couple off brands, and yeah, sort of lusting after an iPhone, I happened on a company called Ting that offered the first really unique plan I'd seen so far. It's modularized and open ended. Use as much or as little as you need, and pay according to the increments you arrive at—indpendently measured among data usage, text usage, and voice. Need all voice? Can do. Lots of text, little voice, and modest data? Can do. Just use the stuff and pay according to the brackets you land in, each of the services cut into six brackets. It's not exactly a utility payment, down to the individual minutes and megabytes, but there's no overage, and no real need to feel a payment was given for services not used. How many times have Kelli and I used 350 anytime minutes and paid for 1000? We overpaid for underusing but one thing we NEVER did in nearly nine years with T-Mobster was go over the 1000 minute plan. Not even by a minute. Those rates were punishing. But then of course, we resented paying the same rate for our less chatty months. There was a company called Cingular (absorbed by ATT) that we once looked at years ago, long before the gnaw of smart phones upon our restraint.

Ting is owned by the same company as I've used for a couple years to manage my web domain names (and other sites I've worked on). Hover is a newer name for Tucows. So they didn't just turn up like mushrooms. And Hover has been enjoyable to call upon for help and transparent in their dealings. So I latched on to Ting and was talking them up long ago. Looking at their blog, Ting has been real helpful and reciprocal in helping people learn their model, and even how to do things that skirt their own plans. Compared to T-Mobster, they are fresh air.

Ting offers a referral program. Interested? You get $25 off your choice of phone or that much toward your first bill, and I get a bill credit. Nifty, eh? The link will recognize my name.

T-Mobster

With the old regime, we had some issues regarding two phones we got at the start of 2011 (and a replacement for one) that all went bad in the same way, rendering the things useless because their touch screens fell out of calibration at about four month intervals. It took some wrangling to get replacements for each of us. Kelli was pissed like crazy that they offered me one and not her, when she had the first and second ones go bad and all they did was shrug and tell her to go to Target and get a cheap no-contract phone and stick the SIM card in. Months after she did that, my own device acted up and that's when they crossed her. We finally found one dude who took the time and got two levels into the customer care phone queue and got some permission. But not before Kelli let fly with some choice pronouncements about perceived gender discrimination.

For a while around the months when we moved to Escondido and therefore were in proximity to old stores and new, we kept going in and getting repeated opinions on what could be done. There was enough difference to give us the clue that no one really cared. Or knew. So, getting wise, we began to come in to pay our bills (their website was a real hit-miss deal that kept kicking us off thanks to whatever browser plugins were used for certain modules) and first ask when our contract was over. We'd get different answers most times at different stores. Yep, repeatedly, we'd get to a few different stores and ask the same questions. 

When is our contract over?

When does the early termination fee start to decline and at what pace?

How come these phones require us to sign a two year contract but the devices themselves seem to last about a year or so? And why are we not readily entitled to a replacement if we're still paying for the phone through contract-rate fees?

We Need to Explore Our Options

Yeah. We had to let them have it. Each time, we were licking our chops at the prospect of finally jumping ship. Once we heard about Ting in early 2012, we were ready to go, and that was even before the second and third messed up phones. Could it be? A smartphone plan that didn't automatically cost the two of us over $110 for a shared plan? And no contract? And the ability to use or not use? Hell yeah!

We were tickled once by the prospect of getting our bill reduced by Kelli's two workplaces both having corporate deals for personal plans. T-Mobster did cut us in on that, and that's when we opted to add in the text messaging plan finally. I had also gotten us set up with Google Voice which extends the phone call and text options. Since I am so often at the computer and am not really a big phone call kinda guy, the calls I did make and take could be routed to the computer, through Google Chat. That saved us a lot of airtime and freed Kelli up to use her own phone in the field. (This was before both companies finally provided her with smart phones. Now she has three of the things here!) Because I ported my venerable cell phone number to Google Voice, I was free to change whatever phones it would point to. Kelli has not as of yet done that, so her venerable number is still the default for the phone, and she has a different Google Voice number that she barely uses. But we plan to change that soon so both our venerable numbers will go to GV first and then route to the otherwise anonymous numbers that the phones bear.

Winning the Lottery

 

 

Ting is a new company so they are trying out all sorts of ways to get their name out into the market. They have made some periodic buyout offers so people can get credits equivalent to whatever their early termination fees (ETF) amount to at the old service. Just last month the Ting blog posted there'd be another opening, and they'd cover up to $350/line. We just found ours were $100 a line. Almost worth paying. But I literally set a calendar alert to get me to the Ting site to sign up at 9:01pm (midnight, EST) on February 1 when the contest went live. A good thing too. I got accepted at 9:02. When we checked back at 10:15, the whole allotted $100,000 pool of money had been claimed. Our T-Mobster cycle ends on the 10th. We ordered the two phones (Samsung Transform Ultra) not really knowing much about Android or smartphones but feeling that the refurbished rate of $76 allowed us to get our feet wet in this brave new world. We ordered on Sunday night, the things shipped on Monday morning and when I awoke on Tuesday by around 10, the box was on my very desk. We activated in time to give T-Mobster the kiss off.

Now we get a final bill from the T-Mafia which we present to Ting, and they credit us the $200 to counter the sting of the ETF at T-Mob. It looks like they'll do the lottery again.

 

 

The March of Need

A couple things led me to be interested in a smartphone. One is that I tend to get jobs that are behind the wheel. I've skated by for a long time not really feeling the need. I know San Diego pretty well, but driving jobs aren't only about navigation. There's a bunch of other stuff that went on over at Specialty Produce where things could not be done so efficiently and quickly without the stuff. I never used a smart phone there but it was clear how much they make possible in an industry with goals that change by the season, month, week, day, hour, minute. More recently I've been driving for another vendor, now going to LA for a few routes a month. They are not corporate at all so there's no company phone coming my way. I don't know LA so well and with my position as more of a freelancer, I need to find some of my own answers while on the road. I've also taken to doing overnight trips to do two routes in one shot, but on consecutive days. So I'd be a bit disconnected without such a phone. 

The other reason I am interested in the smart phone is because of my web work. It's hard to think like a mobile device designer if you don't have a device to work with. And even that is but one opinion since there are so many competing designs. But getting to know how people are seeing sites is very instructive. Due to some proximity to do Kelli and her disabilities ministries work wrapping its tendrils around her, even to the point of her being on the website subcommittee, I'm finding those tendrils are reaching out toward me, just so she can do her work. And of particular concern to what her work is about is accessiblity. So I've been learning more about that. All told, the requirements for anyone doing web work these days is expanding in multiple directions.

As for Kelli's usage, her work is amply covered. Each job gave her a phone. But she can't just go modifying and updating it to her liking. So for her, the whole smartphone thing has been a mystery even as she's used two of them for a year or so. But when we do trips out of town, she's taken one and used it for navigation and some hints about local services. But otherwise, she considers it verboten. She's also finding herself doing more church conference work, flying across the nation as a board member and delegate. She's going to Korea this year for a World Council of Churches gathering. Before then there are a few national things to fly to. So she could use some more flexibility to stay in touch. It's a far cry from her letterpress bookmaking and word processor roots in the 90s.

Brave New World: A la Carte, Galore

It's not a mistake that I waited so long to get into this smart phone business. The rate plans always scared me off, but simply enough, there is so much more complexity to heap on. I have taken long enough to be able to use my computer without having major issues, and maybe without major confusion. But I've not wanted to jump onto the learning curve for smart phones. 

Given that I am less than a week in, there are plenty of workarounds and specs that I am trying to comprehend. The amount of options that the Android system introduces is one thing. Adding Ting's unique set of options in makes it more confusing. Adding Google Voice in makes some things real easy and others real odd. 

For example, I learned that Google Voice could be employed to send text messages not just through the Google Chat on the computer, but through the phone too. Doing it that way lets me bypass the SMS part of Ting's menu of options. Free texing? Fine with me. At the same time, placing a call using Google Voice does not bypass the airtime, and does not serve to reduce minutes even when on WiFi. Huh? Okay, I learned that's because GV is basically calling a local landline and that's forwarding to the destination. I learned of a workaround that lets me make calls using Groove IP, a Voice Over Internet (VoIP) app (like Skype) that piggybacks on the Google Voice connection to Google Chat, but only while on WiFi (at home, Starbucks, and anywhere else with an open connection, or a password-secured connection). The calls bypass Ting's accounting of minutes but are counted instead as data. It's an odd way to make a call! The accounting on that must get interesting. Will it be better to just use minutes or data? I can't tell.

The world of apps running in the background, and not being able to visually mind what goes on when I click off an app and into another... that has me puzzled. I know on the desktop, I can just see what's going on. I can get directly at the files I need. Don't need to worry about the meter ticking on data, or when it's time to use 3G or WiFi.

But all in all, once I learn the workarounds, the option is there at Ting to pay reasonably for usage. Their help and support pages are great because there the discussions are had about how to do all this stuff that you'd think they'd want to shut down. But because they are transparent and want to attract people who value that, they participate in the discussions about how to undercut their own plans! How cool is that?

Maybe Kelli and I will begin to intuit when the time is right to go ahead and use voice minutes (there are no night/weekend/same network freebies, so that's different), versus talking over the WiFi. It might be that if our talk had pushed us into a new "bucket," we'd have to pay the next incremented rate. Some of the jumps seem high—if you get caught at 110 minutes and are locked into pay for 500, sure. But that's sort of a license to just talk more, right on up to the 500 minutes, just to say you got your money's worth. If the minutes are counting close to the next level's threshold, then maybe jump over to a VoIP/WiFi trick like Groove IP and talk there for a while, especially if there's good clearance before that part of the package gets tipped over into the next bracket. It's a whole new thing.

The Fun Parts

I've been carrying a camera or a camera phone around since early 2005, so I've already been collecting things and later doing the rather boring task of copying files via USB to the computer, editing pictures in Photoshop, uploading to my site, and finally inserting pictures into my posts or at Facebook. It's pretty clumsy. There has been all sorts of blog material that got shelved because that process just didn't suit me every week I got something new to show. Of course all those snappy observations were perfect Facebook or Tumblr fodder before either of those platforms got dominant. Instagram and Pixlr-O-Matic and others make the sharing a tad more fun by not forcing me to think so much of the tech specs on the picture, and just to get the job done with some style. I look forward to that. Sharing them off to other desinations like Google Drive let me collect them with far less hassle than before.

Having a few musical/audio apps around helps. A guitar tuner I always have with me? Nice. Sound pressure level meter for some idea what my world is like? Handy. A pitch pipe to help me establish any chromatic tone? Yup. A generous and decent quality voice recorder that records to CD quality audio? Kick ass. (With a reservation being that the mic isn't going to be the best, but hey...)

And then there are the obvious benefits of having email along, and all the other cloud services.

But perhaps the greatest thing is having Wikipedia available to settle all those bar bets and needless arguments that people get into.