Port a Number From Google Voice

We’re all familiar with the wine snob or the cinema snob, in concept, if not in reality.  And while I’d like to believe that I’m relatively humble in most regards, perhaps there’s one thing that I am guilty of.  I might be a phone number snob.  Or maybe just an aficionado.  It’s a ridiculous fascination, to be sure, especially in an age when many of us click on the name of the person that we want to call, rather than punching in his or her ten digits.  But as humans, we like what we like.  Rather than question it, I’ll indulge my obsession on the chance that someone else finds the following discussion interesting or helpful.  As promised by the headline, we’ll get to the topics of Google Voice and number portability sooner or later.

Area Codes
In my particular case, I begin by thinking about area codes.  I like an area code that conveys locational prestige of one sort or another, to the extent that such a thing actually exists (anywhere other than in my own mind).  Months after moving east, I took the time to get a cell phone with Midtown Manhattan’s 212 area code, despite the fact that I actually live a train-ride away in southwest Connecticut.  Today that 212 number serves as my home / office / mobile number, and is the only number printed on my business cards and listed in the signature block of my work e-mails.  Of course the 212 area code isn’t the only one that has economic, pop-culture or political ties, and you may have your own favorite area or area code that you wouldn’t mind using whether you actually live there or not.

Ends in Nice Numbers
When selecting a phone number, I also prefer one that ends in zero if at all possible, with those ending in five as my second choice.  A phone number that ends in 8250 has a more official feel than one that ends in 2583.  While I prefer as much uniformity in my numbers as I can get, some might look for a particular series of digits that spells something or caries other personal meaning.  That’s where Google Voice comes in.

Google Voice
If you’re not already familiar with Google Voice, it’s Google’s free Voice over IP (sort of) service that includes a phone number, voicemail, speech to text, texting, free domestic calls, call forwarding, and low cost international calling.  It’s actually a pretty amazing bundle of features, given the price point of zero dollars.  But my favorite feature of Google Voice is that you can pick from a decent number of area codes and prefixes from all over the United States, and then select the final number of your liking.  Google Voice numbers aren’t available for every area code, but it’s a better way to find a number than leaving it up to random chance.  While experimenting with Google Voice last year, I picked up a pretty great number located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC.  The number looks like it could belong to a political office or a major campaign.

You Can Take It With You
Google Voice is already portable, as there’s an app for Apple’s iOS and Google’s own Android mobile operating system.  For many, Google Voice may provide the most value when used as intended. But for some of us, we may decide that Google Voice isn’t exactly what we’re looking for, and we’d rather take the number with us and go somewhere else.  Specifically, I wanted to see if I could port my fantastic Google Voice number over to a traditional cell phone instead.  People say that they’ve done it, and that it isn’t that hard.  We’ll see about that.

The Inexpensive Experiment
When it comes to “what if” exercises, I don’t like to throw a lot of money at them.  I definitely don’t have money to burn.  On the chance that you don’t either, I’ll note my expenses for various things, and tally up this experiment at the end.  Let’s see how well we keep costs in check.

Finding A Phone
If we’re going to try to port a number to a cell phone, then obviously we have to have a cell phone to port it to.  Being the tech guy that I am, I went rummaging through some bins and came up with an old Motorola RAZR V3.  The phone had AT&T’s logo on the back, indicating that it was almost certainly locked to that provider, but technical instinct told me that the phone could be made to work on any GSM network.  I couldn’t find the AC charger that went with the phone, but I did have a Mini USB cable that I could use to charge the phone from my laptop.  I let the phone charge overnight.  If you don’t have a bin full of castoff hardware, maybe you have a nerdy friend that does.  Cost so far: zero.  But I’d later pony up $4.35 for an AC wall charger for the phone at Amazon.  As an Amazon Prime customer, I paid no shipping charge, nor was Connecticut sales tax added.

With GSM Phones Only
As I happen to be using a GSM phone, I needed to get a SIM for the phone.  (Had I been migrating to a phone made for Verizon or Sprint, the SIM steps in this paragraph and the next would not have been necessary.)  Now I’m already an AT&T customer, with both an iPhone and an iPad on their new Mobile Share service.  In theory, it should be a simple matter to get another phone added to my account.  But Internet tales and personal experience lead me to believe that it would be a hassle to try to add a phone number from a different geographic area to my existing AT&T account, requiring that it first be converted to a business account and all that.  As this was an experiment, I didn’t want to go that far initially.  If the process proved successful, I could always go through the pain with AT&T later.

I decided instead to run this experiment with a company who has never heard of me, and one with whom I have no prior experience.  I went to the other ‘nationwide’ GSM network: T-Mobile.  Via Google, I found a link where T-Mobile is offering, at the time of this writing, a “free” SIM card with no activation fee.  The transaction actually costs $1.05, just enough to force would-be customers to provide a credit card number.  Curiously, T-Mobile also asked several probing questions used to verify my identity beyond a reasonable doubt.  Questions like “Which of the following counties did [your mom] own property in during the last 10 years?” and “Which of the following companies have you worked for?”  I just want a cell phone SIM, not a mortgage!  Perhaps T-Mobile executives have watched too many episodes of HBO’s The Wire, and don’t want to be a source of anonymous cell phones.  Anyway, even with T-Mobile’s online interrogation, the process took only about five minutes.  And the SIM arrived the very next day.

Enable Porting
After receiving my SIM, and just prior to activating my T-Mobile service, I have to first enable porting of my Google Voice number.  Google has a special link to faciliate this.  Upon visiting the link, your Google Voice number will be displayed.  Click on a box labeled ‘Unlock my number’ to begin the process.  While Google gave you the phone number for free when you signed up for Google Voice, they charge you a $3.00 fee to port it out.  You’ll be prompted for a credit card at this time.  Continue as prompted until you get to an ‘Unlocked’ status.  Once your number is unlocked, you’re ready to port it out to another carrier of your choice.  I returned to the page on the next business day to check the status.  This time, out beside ‘Unlocked’ was an ‘Approved’ notation.

Status of Google Voice Number

Google Voice Account Unlocked And Approved For Number Porting

Cell Phone Activation
Having prepared the source of this phone number porting exercise, it’s now time to prepare the destination.  I went to T-Mobile’s Prepaid Activation page to begin.  In the process of signing up, I listed the phone number that I wanted to transfer from Google Voice.  T-Mobile asked for an account number and PIN number, and I specified the same Google Voice number in those boxes as well.  I signed up for a Pay As You Go plan.  As with every other step so far, this process took about five minutes.  I tried to actually pay something on my T-Mobile account, but was told that “The T-Mobile refill system is currently unavailable.”  Fortunately that free SIM card came with a $3.34 initial value, enough to activate the phone and test it.

Unlocking Locked Phone
Remember that my aging Motorola RAZR V3 was originally locked to AT&T’s network?  Well, I went to Cellunlocker.net and paid $7.99 for an unlock code for this particular phone.  They ask for the phone’s IMEI number, generated the unlock code, and sent it to me via e-mail in a matter of minutes.  This step would only be necessary for someone wishing to use a GSM phone that was locked to one network with service provided by another.  But it’s nice to know that such a thing is available.  With the unlock code in hand, I put my T-Mobile SIM in the AT&T-branded Motorola phone, fired it up, and was prompted to ‘Enter Subsidy Password’.  The code from Cellunlocker.net was accepted, after which the phone displayed T-Mobile in the upper, left-hand corner.  And then I took a look at the reception indicator.

T-Mobile SIM in an ATT Phone

T-Mobile SIM in an AT&T Phone

T-Mobile Reception
Cell phone reception – good or bad – is an extremely local phenomenon.  Generally speaking, I’d categorize the four nationwide networks in the following order by coverage: (1) Verizon (2) AT&T, (3) Sprint and (4) T-Mobile.  But the signal strength on your block has a loose correlation at best to a carrier’s national footprint.  In my current apartment, the reception on my iPhone on AT&T is adequate, but not great.  Sometimes it’s three bars, on rare occasions it jumps to four, and sometimes it drops as low as one bar for minutes at a time.  I tend to leave the phone near the window and walk around with a Bluetooth earpiece in my ear.  So imagine my pleasant surprise when the Moto RAZR on T-Mobile showed a full five bars!  And not just at home, as I’d later discover.  Having taken all the steps to get to this point, and having fired up my phone on the T-Mobile network, I now had to wait patiently until the phone number transfer completed.

An ATT and T-Mobile Phone Side By Side

AT&T and T-Mobile Reception Side By Side

Completing Transfer
I began my number porting exercise on Friday evening after work, which is perhaps the very worst time to start it.  Any activities that rely on human acknowledgement aren’t likely to be touched over the weekend.  By Monday evening, I still hadn’t observed any progress from T-Mobile.  So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to fire up a T-Moble Live Chat and ask for an estimated time to completion.  The chat-based agent suggested that I call T-Mobile’s Number Transfer Center at 877-789-3106.  During a 23-minute call, I learned that Google Voice lines are seen as wire lines by other vendors, and that T-Mobile was slated to complete my transfer the following day.  It’s unlikely that my call was necessary.  Sometime Tuesday morning, I received a text message on the Moto RAZR indicating that the transfer was complete.  I began playing with it Tuesday afternoon, confirming calls in and out, and setting up my voicemail.  Separately, during that Friday-to-Tuesday interval, I had stopped in at Wal-Mart and picked up a $10 T-Mobile Pay As You Go card, for an after-tax cost of $10.55.

Total Expenses
I spent a total of $26.94 to confirm that I could port a Google Voice number to a cell phone provider with little difficulty and only a moderate amount of patience required.  That’s really not bad.  The line item expenses were as follows.

Old phone: $0.00
Charger: $4.35
T-Mobile SIM: $1.05
Google unlock fee: $3.00
Phone unlock fee: $7.99
Pay As You Go card: $10.55

Having Fun
Like many IT professionals, I’m no longer constantly excited by technology.  I may go weeks at a time where my job is just a job; a means to an end.  Yet the process of testing number portability out of Google Voice was so exciting that I got up at 4:00 AM on the morning after I initiated the transfer.  I was no longer able to sleep.  It’s that cool.  If you’re so inclined, you might give it a run as well.  And if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call at 202 … nah.  But you might post a comment below.  Meanwhile, I’ll be out and about, comparing T-Mobile’s signal strength to AT&T’s.

The iFusion SmartStation

iFusion SmartStation

(Photo provided by Jeremiah Fleming of AltiGen Communications, Inc.)


 
When I first arrived in Southwest Connecticut just under two years ago, I quickly had four phone lines: a VoIP-based ‘land line’ at home that was bundled in with my cable TV and Internet service, a personal cell phone, a direct line at my office, and a work-issued BlackBerry phone.  It’s probably no surprise to those who know me that I could never remember my own phone number(s).  Over time I’ve pared back of course, as four phone numbers for one person is wasteful if not a bit crazy.  Recently one device – the iFusion SmartStation – has let me shrink my phone footprint down to a single iPhone 4 for all of my calls.

At Home
Now when I’m at home having a casual phone conversation, I’m as content as the next guy to hold my iPhone up to the side of my head.  It feels ergonomic enough with Apple’s Bumper wrapped around it, and I have decent reception indoors thanks to an AT&T 3G MicroCell, reviewed here last year.  My personal calls are infrequent enough that I don’t worry about the electromagnetic radiation being absorbed by my head.

On the Road
And when I’m driving, my vehicle’s Bluetooth integration works well and automatically, such that I never have to touch the phone to answer calls in transit.  I can also place calls using only a single button on the steering wheel followed by voice commands, provided that I’ve previously added the person to my truck’s address book.

At Work
But the office was another story.  It’s the last bastion where the land line reigns supreme.  For starters, if I’m going to use a cell phone exclusively at work, it has to last the entire work day, regardless of that day’s activities.  In my current role as a Senior Systems Administrator, there are days when most of my conversations are conducted face-to-face with my IT colleagues and others in the office.  And then there are days where I participate in a series of conference calls or remote troubleshooting sessions, either of which can rack up significant call time that would drain any cell phone’s battery.  There are ergonomic issues to consider, as I personally don’t enjoy cradling a cell phone to the side of my head with my shoulder for an extended period of time while trying to type with both hands on a keyboard.  Obviously one’s cell phone reception would have to be consistent enough at their desk so as to avoid dropped calls.  And who’s to say whether several hours a day of holding a cell phone directly against one’s head might result in a higher level of electromagnetic radiation absorption than might be healthy for some.  Well, the iFusion SmartStation makes significant strides in all of these areas.

How it Works
As is evident in the picture above, the iFusion SmartStation is essentially a charging dock and corded handset for the iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4, and 4S that is styled like a business desk phone.  Instead of having a business phone’s keypad and display, the iFusion leverages your iPhone for both.  Power is provided to the iPhone via the dock connector, while the voice integration between the base and the iPhone are done through Bluetooth pairing.  The iFusion base provides full-duplex speakerphone functionality and volume controls.  You can play music from your iPhone through the iFusion’s speaker, with the iPhone muting the music when a call comes in and then resuming upon completion.  As the speaker isn’t exactly high fidelity, there’s also a stereo output on the iFusion base to connect a larger set of desktop speakers if music is your thing.  It’s really nice to leave the office at the end of the day with a full charge, despite having used the phone a significant amount throughout the day.

The Fit
The iFusion SmartStation has enough extra room in the recessed tray to accommodate most after-market iPhone cases, whether they add to the phone’s width, height or thickness.  The only cases that appear problematic are those that have a rubber cover over the dock connector that hinges at the back.  Given rumors that the next model of iPhone may be larger in size and / or change to a new, smaller dock connector, we can’t assume that the current iFusion will work with iPhones beyond the currently supported 3G, 3GS, 4, and 4S.  There’s a possibility that an iFusion purchased today may have to be refreshed more often, as is typical of a cell phone, than the long cycle used for traditional business telephone assets.

Reception
I work in an interior office, with a window that looks out into the hallway rather than outside.  My cell phone reception has never been great at my desk.  When holding my iPhone in my hand, the reception would indicate between one and three bars.  As I adjusted the phone relative to my head, the reception would come and go, even dropping calls on occasion.  Upon first getting the iFusion SmartStation, I observed that I had much more consistent cellular reception with my iPhone sitting in the base while I held the corded handset to my head.  Using an iFusion may help pull in fringe reception.  After a couple of weeks, I added an AT&T 3G MicroCell at the office, raising my iPhone’s signal strength to a full five bars from that point on.

The Feel
This is where the iFusion SmartStation really shines.  After a one-time setup, where we pair our iPhone with the iFusion base via Bluetooth, using the iFusion couldn’t be easier.  Simply drop the phone in the cradle when you sit down at your desk and take it with you when you leave.  Your phone charges in place while it sits there.  Incoming calls ring the iFusion’s speaker.  You simply pick up the handset to answer, as you would on a normal phone, and hang it up to end the call.  There’s nothing about using the iFusion day-to-day that isn’t intuitive, especially to someone who already owns an iPhone.  The fit and finish are superb, giving the feel of a professional device that’s as nice as anything on your desk.  Nicer in my case.  And the iFusion is available in either black or white to match your iPhone.

The Bill
During the first full month with the iFusion SmartStation, my iPhone calling ballooned to 1583 minutes, or over 26 hours on the phone!  As I’m on AT&T and had previously accumulated a large cache of rollover minutes, I wasn’t concerned about right-sizing my calling plan prior to beginning the experiment.  As I continue at this rate, however, I’ll need to add AT&T’s Nation Unlimited plan for an additional $30 per month over my current basic Nation 450 plan.  But would that be a good deal?

I work for a medium-sized business that has negotiated fairly attractive rates for our in-state, domestic and international long distance calls.  It’s not free, but it’s close.  Upon analyzing my own mix of calls – inbound and outbound, personal and business, local, toll-free and various tiers of long distance  – it turns out that my company would have paid only $13.43 last month had I made all of my outbound business long-distance calls on the existing land line instead of my iPhone.  Were my particular calling patterns to grow uniformly, I’d have to use around 59 hours of cellular calling each month before AT&T’s $30 Nation Unlimited add-on made financial sense strictly as a business phone replacement.  That’s a lot of time on the phone for a guy who’s not known to say very much.  Any less than that, and I’ll be paying for a convenience factor.  Granted, it’s so convenient – both for myself and anyone trying to reach me – that I’m willing to pay the difference out of my own pocket and plan to do so going forward.  Hey, I can finally remember my own phone number!

Conclusion
Historically a phone was just a phone.  We made and received calls on it when we were in.  Now it goes everywhere we go.  And of course we send and receive e-mail and run all manner of apps, from depositing checks via photograph to remotely starting one’s car.  Maybe having just one phone and phone number for all aspects of our lives is enough.  All of this is possible, of course, on both the iPhone and the numerous phone options running Google’s Android.  As a tech guy, I’m sure that I could get along just fine with an Android phone and get everything done that I wish to get done.  But there’s a catch.  The iFusion SmartStation reminds me that the Apple ecosystem is now rich with accessories and solutions that dramatically enhance the overall Apple experience.  The iFusion SmartStation is among the best of the devices that I’ve encountered.  It’s so good that it creates something of a barrier to exit: I’d now hate to give up my iFusion in order to consider the phone competition.  It’s hard to imagine a similar system that works with the last four generations of all Android phones, given the relatively huge number of models.  Steve Jobs chose to keep it simple at Apple rather than trying to create a product for every niche.  And in doing so, he enhanced the value proposition of the entire Apple ecosystem.

The iFusion SmartStation carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $199.99.  It is available at the time of this writing for $179.99 from thefusionphone.com or $149.99 using a Twitter Promo.

 

[Update: I stated earlier that, “The iFusion SmartStation has enough extra room in the recessed tray to accommodate most after-market iPhone cases.”  I recently swapped out a Case-Mate Barely There case for the popular Speck CandyShell, only to discover that the CandyShell’s thicker surrounding interferes with use of the iFusion SmartStation.  Specifically, with an iPhone in a CandyShell, the phone doesn’t make adequate contact to recharge while sitting in the iFusion base.  That’s unfortunate, so I went looking for another Case-Mate.]

Which iPhone?

A friend sent me the following question a couple weeks ago: “We’re on the verge of jumping from dumb phones … to the iPhone.  I know there’s plenty of marketing hype and consumer comparison sites out there talking about the pros/cons of various phone platforms. … Should I wait for the iPhone 4 to come down in price? Should I go with the easy $50 opportunity to get a iPhone 3GS?”

As is the case in most areas where we have choices, the answer of course is, “It depends.”  This is especially true in the world of cell phones, where we have a lot of choices and they’re continually evolving.

Smart vs. Phone
While it’s easy to focus on the ‘smart’ portion of a smartphone – the applications – I tend to focus first on the original purpose: making phone calls.  Making reliable phone calls requires two things: decent cellular coverage and a well-functioning handset.  Of course cellular coverage varies widely based on your proximity to the nearest antenna, topography, and physical barriers such as dense walls.  It’s also been my experience that two different handsets in the same location on the same network can deliver noticeably different results.  So, we have to choose the network that’s best for our location and needs, as well as a reliable handset that uses the network effectively.

The Network(s)
Here in the United States, there is a long list of cellular carriers, however there are really only four that could be considered nation-wide networks: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.  Most of the rest are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) running on top of one of the aforementioned networks.  Depending on where you are or where you plan to travel, even some of the big four may be unavailable.

Where I grew up in Indiana, T-Mobile is non-existent.  I saw my brother-in-law make a call on Sprint’s network while outside once, though he’d never get a connection indoors.  AT&T can work OK indoors, but is somewhat handset-specific, with older 2G (EDGE) phones working better than newer 3G ones.  And Verizon Wireless can be crystal clear indoors and out, depending on the device.  Your locale may or may not similarly limit your choice of cellular networks to just one or two.

Can you hear me now?
You may have heard that as a blanket rule, Verizon Wireless has the superior network in the United States.  It’s used by General Motors for their OnStar services, for example.  However, Verizon isn’t always better, nor are they better with every handset.  I have an interior office at work in southwest Connecticut, where my company-issued Verizon BlackBerry is unreliable to the point that I’d rather never use it.  Conversely, I’ve used a Nokia N8 on AT&T for up to 20 minutes on a single call from my office without issue.  At the risk of thoroughly confusing the situation, I’ve also seen a person struggle to maintain calls from my office on an iPhone 3 on AT&T while my boss recently switched to an iPhone 4 on Verizon that worked fine in one test call that I made a couple of weeks ago.  It can start to feel like you have to discover a magic combination of network and cell phone that work together in your setting.  It always helps to solicit feedback from nearby peers as to what they’re currently using and whether or not they’re satisfied with it.

Abroad
There’s one other important distinction between cellular providers.  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM technology similar to, though at slightly different frequencies, as most other countries throughout the world.  AT&T likes to say that you can “Stay connected while traveling to more than 220 countries and on more than 140 cruise ships, and access email and the Internet in more than 195 countries.”  Verizon Wireless and Sprint use CDMA technology, effectively limiting your use to the North America and a much smaller set of other countries.  While both Verizon and Sprint offer some dual-mode phones that will roam on GSM when outside of a CDMA country, the current iPhone 4 offered by Verizon is not one of them.  If European travel is in your future, an iPhone on AT&T will work on your trip while the phone from Verizon becomes a paperweight.  This may not be the case with future editions.

[Less than 24 hours after posting this, I’m reading a rumor that the iPhone 4S may support both CDMA and GSM networks in a single device.]

Enhancing Your Local Signal
If you’re interested in using a cellular network that generally has good coverage but happens to have poor coverage inside your home, three of the big four carriers now offer reasonably-priced femtocells.  Think of a femtocell as your own personal cellular repeater in your living room, that leverages your broadband Internet connection to backhaul phone calls to your carrier’s network.  These devices are marketed under various names such as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender and the Sprint AIRAVE.  I just deployed an AT&T 3G MicroCell at home over the Memorial Day weekend, and one of my IT peers is looking into the Verizon Wireless Network Extender for several of our offices.

Another Reception Technique
We all likely heard of ‘antennagate’ in the wake of Apple’s iPhone 4 release.  This referred to a phenomenon where the iPhone’s signal strength would fall off – sometimes dramatically – when the phone was held in the hand in a particular way.  Apple’s response was to reprogram the algorithm behind the signal strength display and to hand out free ‘bumpers’ to encase the phone’s metal antenna band in an insulating layer.  Steve Jobs also noted, correctly, that the iPhone isn’t the only phone that loses signal strength when held in the hand.

Plantronics Discovery 925 Bluetooth EarpieceI typically fire up a Plantronics Discovery 925 bluetooth earpiece when I’m making calls from a fringe reception area.  This allows me to leave my phone lying down, sometimes near a window, while walking around carrying on a conversation.  My phone’s limited reception in that particular area isn’t further degraded by my holding it.

iPhone 3GS vs 4
Transitioning into an iPhone discussion, the original question asked whether a $49 iPhone 3GS with 8 GB of flash memory was worth considering as an alternative to the $199 iPhone 4 with 16 GB.  We should note that the iPhone 3GS is offered only by AT&T, so that will have to be your network of choice if you are to make this selection.  Rather than limit our thinking to the initial cost of acquiring the phone, let’s consider the total 2-year cost between the two.  A hypothetical 2-year contract from AT&T featuring 450 rollover minutes, 2 GB of data per month and unlimited text messaging is going to cost $89.99 /month plus taxes and fees.  Adding together the cost of the initial phone, a one-time activation fee of $36.00, and two years of service, that iPhone 3GS will cost you $2,244.76  (plus tax) while the iPhone 4 will cost $2394.76.  That’s a distinction of 6.2 % over the life of the contract.  For my money, I’d pay the extra 6.2% for the latest phone with twice as much flash memory.

iPhone 4, AT&T, Verizon, White, Black
As noted previously, the iPhone 4 is of course available via AT&T or Verizon Wireless.  If you’ve already made a decision about which network is right for you, then you’ve still got a few remaining choices.  Do you want 16 GB of flash memory, or 32 GB for an extra $100.  (That’s only another 4% over the life of our earlier hypothetical 2-year contract.)  Do you want a black phone or the recently-release white version, which will put you in a relatively exclusive club for at least the next few weeks?

Android Alternative?
So far we’ve conveniently ignored the largest-selling smartphone platform of all – Google’s Android OS – which accounted for 36% of all smartphone sales in Q1 2011 according to Gartner.  By contrast, Apple’s iOS platform accounted for 16.8% of smartphone sales in Q1, behind 2nd-place Nokia.  As someone who regularly uses Linux at home, one might expect that I’d lean toward Android, which uses a Linux kernel.  On the contrary, I feel like Android is fairly fragmented at this time, with no consistent operating system updates or security patches from one handset and carrier to the next.  On the other hand, users who prefer the maximum flexibility may be well advised to look at Android.

One Opinion
White iPhone 4When I began answering my friends question, I stated, “It depends.”  It’s probably fitting to end with what I’d choose, were I making the choice today.  In relative civilization here in the East, I’d probably start by picking AT&T for the simple fact that all of their higher-end phones will roam globally.  While I’m far from affluent when compared to some in Connecticut, I’m also single.  A plane ticket for one from, say, New York to London, could conceivably be well within my means at some point during the life of the phone contract.  It doesn’t hurt to dream, nor to keep my passport current.

Next, I’d go with the iPhone 4 for it’s broad ecosystem of apps on a consistent, well supported platform.  I’d go with a white one, not because my vehicle and furniture are all white, but due to a particular idiosyncrasy within my personality.  When a large enough crowd runs in one direction, I sometimes want to run the other.  While strictly a cosmetic difference, going white is about the only way to be different with an iPhone at the moment.  [Photo courtesy of Apple.]

Finally, I’d go with the 16 GB model versus the 32, as I still want to use my phone as a phone and not run the battery down while watching feature-length movies.

[Update: On June 14th I put my money where my mouth is and purchased this exact phone.  So far, so good.]

Now It’s Your Turn
Given the many options and personal motivations behind selecting a phone, I’d expect each of us to reach a slightly different conclusion.  Thankfully we’ve got some compelling options to choose from.

Use Gmail With Your Domain

If you’ve not used Gmail yourself, you’re almost certainly familiar with the concept of web-based, free e-mail boxes with plenty of storage.  Until Google introduced Gmail as an invitation-only beta on April 1st, 2004, most other services such as Microsoft’s Hotmail limited users to a few megabytes of e-mail storage.  Gmail debuted offering a 1 gigabyte mailbox capacity, since increased to 7.5 GB and counting, and precipitated our modern-day concept of what web-based e-mail should be.  In more recent years, you can combine the functionality of Gmail with your own Internet domain name.

Google has since gone on to wrap up Gmail in their Google Apps, including Google Docs and Google Calendar.  While many potential readers here have an intuitive, expert-level familiarity with Google’s most popular offerings, this post may be worth your time if…

  • You’re an IT professional who has seen headlines from time to time regarding organizations outsourcing their e-mail, calendars, documents and other services to Google.  Examples include the City of Los Angeles, New York University and the U.S. General Services Administration.  You’re interested in this topic in a general sense, but you’ve yet to look into how much or how little effort might be involved.
  • You’re a business owner or manager considering the purchase or replacement of an on-premise e-mail server and are interested in knowing more about alternatives.  You want reliable and secure e-mail, calendar and document sharing among your team at a price you can afford.
  • You’ve registered one or more Internet domain names for your personal or small business use but haven’t set up e-mail for the domain yet.  You still list a Gmail, Hotmail or similar e-mail provider’s address on your web site or business card.  You may be interested in presenting an e-mail address containing yourdomain.com to your customers.

The aforementioned Google Apps, including Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs, are now available in several flavors for different users populations.  Those include the free edition, as well as versions for Business, Education, Government and Nonprofits.  While headline-grabbing implementations are complex, potentially multi-year projects, walking through the basic setup is relatively simple.

For any individual, organization or business needing less than 50 mailboxes, the Google Apps free edition may serve all of your needs.  For businesses with more than 50 mailboxes or needing a feature only available in the Business edition (such as an SLA and 24×7 support), you’ll generally pay $50 per mailbox, per year.  We can always get started with the free edition and switch to the paid edition later.  A feature comparison is here.

[Update: Beginning May 10, 2011, Google Apps free edition is limited to businesses with 10 or fewer mailboxes.]

So, just how easy is setting up Google Apps?  Assuming that you already have an Internet domain registered and have authorized access to your domain’s DNS server records, an IT professional who is familiar with DNS concepts can set up Google Apps for a domain in around ten minutes.  Seriously.  Let’s summarize the process here and then link to a step-by-step PDF with screen shots.

Prerequisites

  • Internet domain name registered with a domain registrar.
  • Access to and appropriate credentials for the DNS server settings for the domain.
  • Basic knowledge of DNS concepts including MX, CNAME and TXT records, or willingness to investigate these concepts as you complete the implementaiton.

Steps

  • Get started.
  • Enter your domain name.
  • Provide real-world contact information for your domain.
  • Enter desired administrator name and password.
  • Verify domain ownership by creating DNS entry as instructed.
  • Choose to switch entire domain.
  • Provide friendly URL such as http://mail.yourdomain.com.
  • Update MX records.
  • Active e-mail.
  • Provide friendly URL for docs and calendar if desired.
  • Enable SSL.
  • Set up DKIM if desired.
  • Start creating users.
  • Explore.  Make additional customizations as desired.
  • Enable POP or IMAP in your individual mailbox if desired, allowing connectivity via your favorite e-mail client or smartphone.

Outcome
With an initial investment of zero dollars and a few minutes of our time, we can set up customized Gmail boxes for up to 50 10 users on a previously established Internet domain.


Value Proposition
It would be silly to suggest that migrating a large organization from on-premise Microsoft Exchange and Outlook to Google Apps would be easy, or without significant investment of both time and money.  Regulatory compliance in certain industries adds additional challenges and cost, though Google has answers for that too in the form of Postini.  One would have to balance the ongoing purchases and maintenance of server hardware along with software licensing against Google’s $50 per mailbox, per year.  That calculation is going to come up differently from one organization to the next.  For those that find value on Google’s side of the equation, perhaps there is less to be nervous about after walking through the process.  For those who can get by on the Free Edition, why not?

A detailed walk-through with screen-shots is linked here: Using Gmail With Your Domain