Friday, August 21, 2009

The Experiment Begins

Some may be wondering what The Nokia Tablet Experiment is, or why my wife and I have decided to embark on it. So, let me explain.

First, the reasoning. My wife and I are poor college students. We currently have a family cellphone plan for the two of us with a major mobile phone provider which has recently expired. We are paying month to month now until we can find a new solution or decide to renew our contract for another two years. As we have been crunching the numbers for the budget lately we have noticed that our phone plan (the cheapest one the provider offers) was adding up to about $1000 per year! This is with a 14% DISCOUNT tacked on that we received as a promotion! That is money that could go towards tuition, books for classes, dates consisting of more than a walk to the park and a shared $1.50 ice cream cone, etc.. We have shopped around at other mobile phone carriers and the price is comparable. At most we could save a couple dollars per month.

Thus, an alternative had to be found. Internet connectivity is found in most student housing in our area and we already own a wireless router. In addition, BYU (the university we attend) has WiFi in almost every building on campus. And lastly, every job I have had has either had WiFi available and/or a strict no cellphone use policy during work hours. This got me to thinking "If I could find a way to make calls over the internet via WiFi with a device the approximate size of a cellphone, I could cut our mobile calling bill down to almost nothing." Thus the hunt was on and the experiment began.

Requirements of the experiment:
  1. WiFi capable device that must also be comparable to a cellphone in size and weight
  2. SIP/VoIP application (preferably free) that can run on said device
  3. Phone number that can reroute calls to either SIP/VoIP number, home land line number, or other phone numbers as needed
  4. Centralized location to save all voice-mail, text messages, etc.
Solutions thus far:
  1. The obvious choice for a WiFi device was a Nokia N series internet tablet. With the Nokia N810 finally falling to a reasonable price, still being in production, and still being supported via the open source Maemo project it became the product of choice for my wife and I. Besides, being a huge FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) supporter made the move to a Linux based device an easy choice for me. The total cost of it being $440 including tax and shipping for two tablets. They are currently in the mail and should arrive in about 2-3 days from now.
  2. For an SIP/VoIP application, this became easy. The Nokia Tablets have had support from both Skype and Gizmo (both have limited free plans) for quite some time. The applications from both companies for Nokia N810 are well tested and stable. As of now, we have not decided on either provider. Any input from you (the readers) regarding the pluses and minuses of both options would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to leave comments on this or other posts with suggestions.
  3. Google Voice = mind-boggling amazingness. It can reroute calls to multiple phone numbers, reroute the call to a certain phone depending on who the caller is, block callers, etc.. Both my wife and I have Google Voice accounts and they are awesome. Sadly, there is not enough room here to explain all its greatness. Check it out if you don't know what it is yet.
  4. The last problem of voice mail and text message storage is also answered by Google Voice (again, more mind-boggling amazingness).
Thus the experiment begins. There are still a few unanswered questions including: porting our old cell numbers to Google Voice (not yet supported), getting permanent numbers for free with either Skype or Gizmo, and others that I can't currently remember. This are minor, but somewhat problematic. We would rather not have to try to get all our friends, family and businesses we are associated with to begin using our Google Voice number, thus porting over our old numbers would be a much simpler solution. Getting a permanent Skype of Gizmo number is cheap (in the vicinity of 5 dollars per month), but free would be better considering this is an experiment of cutting costs. I am sure solutions to these problems will reveal themselves as we go deeper and deeper into this new adventure of technology.

Again, this is why we need your help. Our knowledge is limited and our experience with certain aspects of this problem are as well (VoIP apps like Skype and Gizmo being a good example of this). Thus, your knowledge and experience are critical in making this as successful as possible for us and others who might follow in our footsteps. Thank you all in advance for your support in this new endeavor.


  1. Ethan & Diane -
    This is a very interesting experiment, and I hope that it works well for the two of you. For me it would raise a few concerns:

    First off, the major advantage of having a cell phone, for me, is being reachable in the case of emergencies, as well being able to reach others in the case of an emergency of my own (roadside, etc).

    Second, having WiFi products of my own (iPod touch) that I use on a consistent basis, I can say that there are definite limits to their usefulness, especially when WiFi is not available, which is quite frequent for me.

    Are you guys still going to have a land-line during the experiment? If so, I would almost say that a more useful experiment as a poor college student would be to ditch the tablets and just go with the land-lines, except for long-distance calls. People have been living off of their home phones for years, you know!

    At any rate, I wish you the best of luck, and I'm interested to hear how it goes!

  2. Thanks for bringing those points up. I think these are critical issues that do need to be addressed and would make this experiment a definite no go for a lot of people.

    We actually do currently have a land line, however long distance is not available on our home phone. The beauty of the experiment is that Google Voice allows us to make long distance calls for free. It also allows us to receive text messages just like a cell phone, thus allowing our text messaging addicted friends to still reach us in the way they like best. The other aspect is that the Nokia Internet tablet allows us to use other web based services like Google Calender, Gmail, Facebook, etc. So really, they are meant to be a sort of cellphone, laptop, planner replacement all in one. Also, in dire no WiFi situations, a Nokia N810 tablet can connect to a cellphone via Bluetooth and transfer data through a cell network. Though a round about solution, it would still work.

    I do agree, having a cell phone for emergencies is nice. For me though, I only really feel fearful about not having a cell phone during long road trips and the like. In that situation I would buy a prepaid phone and have my Google Voice number reroute all calls to it for the vacation time. 99% of our lives these days are spent at home or the University. If we lose WiFi connectivity in these places, there is always a land line or a kind person with a cellphone nearby. I have also realized that 99% of the phone calls I receive are non-critical. Of the ones that are critical, there is still usually a few hours of time before I need to address the issue or even know about it. So always receiving a call RIGHT when someone calls is becoming less and less a concern for me.

    If I were a different person in a different stage of life, getting rid of a cellphone might be totally impractical. But for where we are right now, we are pretty sure it will work. Also, this is why we haven't stopped our cellphone plans yet: it is an experiment.

  3. Couple of things:

    First: If you can't port your numbers to Google Voice, just ditch whatever else for Google Voice. even though it'd be kinda rough, there'll never be a better time for it.

    Second: I believe that you can use deactivated phones for emergency calls to 911 still, so that it one possible solution for that problem. Though if you never use it, chances are the battery will wear out and it wouldn't be helpful in the event of an emergency anyways. Instead, I would get a prepaid/trac phone with a bunch of minutes (assuming the minutes on them don't expire) and just save it for when you're out of wifi range. I think you'd still come out ahead on cost (even if you ended up getting two prepaid phones) and with google voice it wouldn't matter anyway. (Maybe we should put together a startup selling prepaid phones that have a google voice app installed already - that would be so sweet)

    Third: sounds like a pretty sweet deal. I love having a smart phone device, and I'm definitely one who uses my phone to surf the web more than make calls. The alternative money saving plan I've seen people get into is to get a fav-5 plan with T-Mobile, and then put their google voice account in their fav-5 so that practically all of their calls are freee (or don't take any minutes). Your plan is much more blog worthy though. I think you could make it work, and maybe not even be too inconvenient. Though if you lived in a city with WiMax it might work better.

  4. @Derrick
    +1 to your second point there: FCC regulations require 911 calls to be processed from any cellphone on any available network, whether the phone is activated or not, even a prepaid cellphone.

    Many prepaid cellphones charge by the day, so if you had prepaid something like 5 days, and only used it one day of your vacation, then you would have 4 days rollover time at the end of your vacation, and be ready for the next road trip :)

    +1 on the idea of keeping personal telecommunication needs simple.
    -1 on the idea of using a home phone only. Allow me to explain.

    In his book, "The Four Hour Workweek", Timothy Ferriss advocates a twice-daily email/voicemail checking routine, and while this could conceivably be done by remotely checking your home phone's voicemail system, you still need a telecom device capable of remotely checking your voicemail. Enter Ethan's brilliant plan. You don't need 24/7 wifi access to be able to check your voicemail/email frequently enough (even for urgent business); 30-40 minutes daily is sufficient. And by using Google Voice, your voicemails can be automatically transcribed into text for even faster review, helping you to streamline your telecom. And, of course, if you genuinely need to respond quickly, you can then make a phone call the moment you learn of the need to make it. What's more, if the people you communicate with on a regular basis are aware of your policy of checking email/voicemail only twice a day, and you give them a definite window of time in which to expect a response, say between 12-1pm and again between 4-5pm, then the nature of telecommunicated requests will eventually change to accomodate your new schedule.

    I apologize if this comments doesn't fall strictly within the scope of the experiment, but new technology is meaningless without a shift in user experience :)