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Technology Untangled: Add communication flexibility to tablets and smartphones

Stephen Bour
January 16, 2013
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technology-bourTablets were in big demand as gifts this past holiday season. Many of the more economical choices are Wi-Fi-only devices. They do not connect with the 3G and 4G cell tower networks. As such, their communication abilities are more limited than a smartphone. I was looking for ways to make Wi-Fi tablets more versatile as communication tools and found several interesting applications. Today we will look at apps to turn your Wi-Fi tablet, or iPod Touch, into a push-to-talk (PTT) walkie-talkie, a device for standard SMS texting, and even a free wireless telephone. The PTT apps also work quite well with any standard smartphone.

The walkie-talkie function caught my attention because of a recent series of PTT cell phone commercials from AT&T. It reminded me about how often a short, concise message could be preferable to a cell phone conversation. The popularity of text messaging in place of making phone calls proves the point. But many times a short, immediate voice message can work even better. The dangers of texting and driving also can be avoided by replacing those communications with PTT conversations.

The first app I investigated is called Zello. This free walkie-talkie application works between Android, iOS, Blackberry and even PC. It works over both 3G and Wi-Fi. This means it can turn any tablet into a useful voice communication device. The system beeps with a tone for both sending and receiving, so it is easy to notice the alerts when someone is trying to contact you. I found it useful for getting the attention of my kids by breaking in with my voice while they are absorbed on the tablet with a game or movie. For office settings, however, the beeping could get annoying. I found Zello most useful as a good substitute to texting while driving. It has a clearer sound than my usual speakerphone call when in the car. It also worked well for instant communication while running errands during the holiday season.

Another similar free app is TiKL Touch Talk Walkie Talkie. I think that the interface and execution of this app is subjectively better than Zello, but it only works with smartphones and not with Wi-Fi tablets. TiKL was easy to configure for simultaneous messaging to multiple recipients, making it a viable group communication app. The standard incoming alert tone is a quirky doorbell sound, but it does get your attention. There is also a “polite mode” setting that suppresses your caller’s voice until you answer. This keeps people from launching in to a walkie-talkie conversation with you while you are on an elevator, for example. In place of instantaneous PTT conversations you can also send either short voice messages or text-style chat messages that can be opened by your recipient at their convenience. I like these voice messages better than traditional phone voicemail. It works faster and more efficiently.

Be aware that when using PTT services over your 3G data network that data usage does accrue, so if you do not have an unlimited data plan, keep an eye on your usage. I do not think that Zello or TiKL use anywhere near as much data as a media-streaming feature like Pandora, but I haven’t gathered any specific numbers. In addition, I notice that phone battery life is affected a bit, more so when on 3G than on Wi-Fi.

Texting with a Wi-Fi tablet works well using a free app called TextMe. It works with both Android and iOS. It allows you to do true SMS messaging with any cell phone in the U.S. This app assigns a phone number to your tablet that others can use to send and receive text messages. I notice that I have my tablet in hand more often than my phone these days. It is convenient to be able to communicate via texting without needing to switch over to my phone. For multi-taskers, it makes it easy to talk on your phone and text with your tablet at the same time.

Additionally, TextMe allows you to make and receive free phone calls from your tablet or iPod any time you have a Wi-Fi connection. This essentially turns an iPod into a smartphone, but without the accompanying monthly cellular bill. While the app is free, you need to earn extra minutes by watching occasional ads. You do not, however, use up your minutes when making calls with other TextMe users. So, if your traditional cell phone plan is running low on minutes or has a low monthly allowance, you can call using TextMe from your smartphone and save your cell minutes for when you are on the road away from a Wi-Fi signal.

Another presumably more robust Wi-Fi phone application is available from Skype. It is not free, but you can get a Skype number and buy unlimited phone time for about $3 a month.

Since free Wi-Fi seems to be available virtually everywhere, the communication versatility of a Wi-Fi enabled tablet or iPod will continue to expand, further blurring the lines between smartphones and tablets.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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  1. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

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  4. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  5. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

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