Getting your communications set up abroad can be a real pain, particularly if you want to have regular international communication. I’m spending 2 months doing research in Cape Town, South Africa, so I wanted to find a cheap solution for keeping in touch with people back in the states. I ended up going with Google Voice & Skype to make and receive calls at a cheaper rate than what I could get using a carrier directly.
Of course I could have just used my Sprint Android phone here, but their international rates were obscene. And I couldn’t just slip a new SIM card in (Sprint is CDMA), so I started off with purchasing a cheap new phone at a Cell C store here (local phone company). If you’re also on a non-GSM phone, you should be able to purchase a cheap phone for <$50 wherever you are.
In an ideal world, your friend would call you using some sort of fancy VOIP landline, like Vonage, which would allow them to make free international calls directly to your international number (this is what my parents do). However, landlines seem to be mostly dead among our generation, so you have to give another option for friends who want to call you directly from a mobile phone.
I first set up a Skype Online Number (previously known as a SkypeIn Number), which is basically a local phone number that forwards directly to your Skype account. I set mine to be a local number for the SF Bay area, but you’d want to make it whatever is cheapest for your friends to call. Whenever someone calls this number, they will be forwarded to your Skype account (so you can answer them from your computer if you’re online, and neither of you will be charged any additional fees).
If you then want these calls to forward to your cell phone abroad, you can set up Skype Call Forwarding. This service will forward calls to a number of your choice whenever you are not logged into Skype on a computer. The rates are a bit confusing, as you actually go by the regular Skype pay as you go call rates (they don’t have any special rates for the forwarding service – it’s treated the same as if you used Skype to call a phone in that particular country). Some representative forwarding rates for mobile phones (charged to you, not your friend) include (from cheap->expensive): China – $0.024/min, United States – $0.024/min, South Korea – $0.084, Taiwan – $0.116/min, Japan – $0.177/min, Ireland – $0.227/min, South Africa – $0.268/min, UK – $0.291/min, Spain – $0.312/min, Peru – $0.352/min. These rates are much lower if you’re having them forwarded to a landline (but then, you should probably just pick the call up on a computer for free directly).
Finally, if you really want to simplify things for your friends, you can add your Skype Online Number to your Google Voice profile, allowing people to reach you on your international cell phone by just calling the Google Voice number they’re already used to. You can even set up rules and filters to make sure you limit who can actually reach your international phone directly.
In order to make calls, you’ll want to set up a Skype To Go Number. This is similar to the Skype Online Number (that people call from your home country), but it’s a local number generated for the country where you’re traveling (you can create multiple Skype To Go numbers, too, if you’re traveling to several places). Then, using your mobile phone, you can call the Skype To Go number where you’ll get a prompt offering to connect you with one of your contacts (you can set up to 6 contacts online beforehand). This is obviously suboptimal as you lose access to your primary contacts list. But it’s the best way I’ve found. Skype will also let you adjust what number shows up on your friend’s caller ID when using this method (so you could set it to be your Google Voice number, so they’d have no idea you’re calling from Timbuktu).
When receiving calls, the only fee you have to pay is usually the small Skype rate per minute (most pay-as-you-go phones don’t charge for receiving calls, so you don’t incur additional fees from your provider abroad). However, if you want to make a call to someone internationally, you’ll be paying whatever your international provider rate is to call the local Skype To Go number, plus the Skype call rate for mobile phones in your area (same prices listed above). For me, this works out to 1.50 Rand (~$0.21)/min. So I’d usually only do this to call a contact and then ask them to call me back (so I don’t get charged $0.268/min from Skype + $0.21/min from Cell C).
There are a number of other players coming up in this field. There are even several that could be cheaper than Skype (depending on which country you’re in). It’s definitely worth checking them out for your particular circumstances, but they all basically work how I described above. Competitors include Rebtel, Vopium, LocalPhone, TollFreeForwarding, and Ribbit Mobile.
Hopefully the Google Voice product will be extended to international calling soon, abrogating the need for this jerry-rigged system (and also giving you access to your entire contacts library when calling from abroad). It would also be nice to see all the major service providers using compatible networks, so users can easily switch their phones as they travel (I unfortunately didn’t think about this too much when I joined Sprint). But there have been a few perks to my brief romance with a “dumb” phone. The battery lasts for days, and I can definitely trust it to start up and shut down immediately when I want it to. Now if only the camera could take pictures with more than 17 pixels in them…
It’s amazing to think how much communication has changed just during my quarter century of life. I got to see the rise of the internet, cell phones, and then cell phones with internet. Bad-ass. Now it’s hard to imagine what communication will look like 25 years from now, but I’ll bet Google will help push us there in at least some respects. For example, telephone communications suffer from a number of obnoxious shortcomings that Google has solved through their acquisition and subsequent development of Grand Central, a service you might better recognize as Google Voice.
Sometimes Google makes awesome acquisitions
Google has really been on top of its game when it comes to acquiring awesome products (YouTube, Etherpad, Picnik, Aardvark, Docverse, etc.). But one of their greatest claims has been Grand Central. I remember a few years ago when I was using Callwave to transcribe my voicemails and Grand Central to control the flow of my calls from phone to phone. Eventually, Callwave began charging for the service and, being a cheap grad student, I switched to Messagesling (deadpooled, unfortunately). However, my investment in Grand Central was validated when Google acquired them in 2007. But this basically lead to a lot of frustration on our end, as Google seemed to neglect the service for over a year. And then, out of nowhere, Google released Grand Central again, but rebranded as Google Voice. And the new service offered a number of improved features (including voice-to-text transcription). This quickly became my primary telephony manager.
Google Voice has more features than you can shake a stick at
But that’s ok, you don’t have to use all of them. But just in case you’re curious, here’s a summary:
- Call Forwarding | You set up a custom phone number (area code of your choice) that acts like a forwarding email address. Anyone calling this number passes through Google’s pipes and gets directed to one or more of your phones based on individual and group settings (coworkers ring the work phone, friends ring the cell).
- Voicemail Transcription | Although the accuracy is questionable, I can generally get the gist of the voicemail based on the transcription, eliminating the need to waste time listening to most messages.
- Call Recording | Simply pressing ‘4’ during a received call starts audio recording (saved to your Google Voice account). Unfortunately this doesn’t appear to work for outgoing calls yet, but would be awesome for keeping track of customer support communications (for quality assurance purposes only, of course).
- Searchable Aggregation| Everything is stored within arm’s reach, and it’s all searchable. You can finally get your personal and work communications all together.
- Free SMS | SMS is the biggest scam when it comes to mobile charges, but you can bypass these rates using Google Voice’s SMS capabilities (via the web or the native application). Although Sprint offers reasonable rates on plans with unlimited texts.
- Phone on the Interwebs | You can readily search your text messages and voicemails via the intuitive web interface, Android application, or mobile website (for those stuck with iPhones). Google offers call widgets to ease communication even further. I generally use the chrome plugin to manage texts and voicemails when I’m at my computer.
- Be an Asshole | Google Voice gives you lots of opportunities here. When someone calls, you have the option to listen-in as they leave a voicemail, deciding whether their puny request merits a response. You can also block numbers with ease, or set up granular options to forward to voicemail.
Room for improvement
While Google is definitely pushing some metaphorical envelopes with its Voice product, there are still quite a few critical envelopes looking for some pushing-love.
- Let’s begin with integration. If you don’t have a smart phone capable of running the Google Voice app (including the magic phone), you have to deal with a browser interface, which makes the app basically useless (it would just confuse your friends when you call from a different number from what they have stored).
- Even if you do have the authentic GVoice application, there doesn’t seem to be really good SMS integration. The app must remain open in order to receive notifications of text messages sent to GVoice (I circumvent this by having GVoice notifications forward to gmail, but not my SMS, so I get voicemail/SMS notification via the gmail notifier on Android). However, this means you’re out of luck if you wander somewhere without a data connection, like Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe.
- Google still seems to be having trouble working out number porting, so you can’t quite port your current number over yet. But they do let you make Google Voice your designated voicemail inbox for your current number.
- The Google Voice site seems a bit superfluous, and would probably be best implemented like Buzz, as an integrated layer within gmail. I already have these events forwarding to gmail, but really the whole communication interface should probably be there. Threading is also pretty bad in google voice, making SMS conversations a bit cumbersome to deal with.
- I still haven’t noticed much in the way of third party development on Google Voice. This could lend a lot of power to Google’s platform, so it’s probably just a matter of time before it happens. Especially considering the competition is playing this very angle.
Although Google seems to be safely ahead of its competitors, there is still quite a big market to grab, with a number of players reaching for it. Ribbit has already promoted some early showcases of its salesforce-style solution to telephony. Apple is also competing with Google Voice in some respects, trying to fascistitize it out of the app market because it’s better than Apple’s native interface. Gizmo5 also had an interesting technology until – oops, acquired by Google. Of course you can’t ignore the big old school fish in the new school sea, as Microsoft promotes their Phone Data Manager. There’s also Jajah and Skype for calling, Skydeck to track calls, Zyb to manage contacts, Slydial to sneak around voicemail, and Jott to interface with messaging. Am I forgetting anyone? I guess it doesn’t really matter, Google Voice will take over anyway. U! S! A! U! S! A!!!
People seem to think credit scores are really important. I guess I haven’t really seen the value so much as a grad student who isn’t taking out any mortgages, though it probably had an impact on my auto loan a few years back. But I trust the finance people, it’s probably something to be concerned about when it comes to borrowing money for a car, a house, or a bikini. But really, I just like metrics of any kind, so of course I became interested in credit reports.
Prior to discovering CreditKarma, I used to get 3 free credit reports a year using annualcreditreport.com (note: don’t fall for the catchy jingles, freecreditreport.com is a scam). The basic idea is that each of the 3 major US credit reporting agencies is required by law to provide you with one free credit report a year, so I just made a note on my calendar to check a specific agency every 4 months. But this doesn’t give your actual credit score, just a report of your current number of accounts and a history of bad things you may have done. You usually have to pay some extra fee to get the score, unless you want to play a game of chicken with cancellation deadlines (which I’ve done before). But I’m done with all that now that I’ve found CreditKarma.
CreditKarma is free and it’s pretty awesome
CreditKarma is sort of like a Mint for your credit score. You have to enter your credentials once (name, address, social security number), and then they’ll track your score on a monthly basis (but they’ll also check it instantly at any point that you want). It’s important to note that these aren’t “hard” credit inquiries, so they don’t hurt your score. It’s also important to note that a lot of people are afraid of identity theft and martians and other crazy stuff, but the company seems pretty reliable to me.
Beyond quantifying your fiscal dependability in a single number, CreditKarma also provides some nice reports breaking down the individual areas that contribute to that score. They give you a letter grade and a percentile ranking relative to the rest of the herd, helping point you in the right direction to bring that score up to par. On top of that, you can run a “credit simulation” to predict how your credit would change based on a range of choices (paying off your loan, getting a new credit card, selling your soul, etc.). Ok, maybe not that last one. Anyway, all of this is pretty nice, with the only real catch being the targeted offers they show you. Fortunately, there aren’t any annoying pop-up ads, so it doesn’t really hurt the site’s credibility much…which I guess is good for a credit scoring site.
Ok, I’m a huge fan of gmail. And I’m actually pretty happy with buzz as it’s opened up conversations with people I don’t normally interact with via standard web-based social networks. It’s also great how quick Google is to implement enhancements to these products. But this has led to one major issue I’ve had with google over the past couple of years – their updates frequently break third party plugins that leverage google’s API’s.
Of course I wouldn’t necessarily expect Google to work hand-in-hand with every single third party developer, but they should at least keep some major ones in the know. In this case I’m referring to Remember the Milk. One of the most useful applications I’ve encountered on the web is the Remember the Milk plugin for gmail. For those who aren’t in the know, RTM is a simple task manager that lets you easily add tasks by typing things like “Send in rent check Thursday”. But really there isn’t anything that special about RTM when compared with the vast array of competitors (PhiTodo, Taskbarn, Remindr, teamtasks, Task2Gather, TheBigPic, Producteev, Basecamp, Planzone, and LifeTick, to name a few). In fact, RTM really disappoints when it comes to organizing and planning big-picture goals (TheBigPic and LifeTick are both much better for this). But the key redeeming feature for RTM is the gmail plugin.
The RTM gmail plugin is incredible. It is one of the few utilities that I absolutely rely on to remain organized on a day-to-day basis (others include gmail and gcal). And the key feature of the gmail plugin is that you can simply star an email and have it automatically become a task in the RTM side panel. This is extremely helpful for keeping up with emails. I can prioritize and postpone responses by relevance, and clicking on the task in the side panel will pull the relevant email up so I can address it right away. These features are especially critical since probably 70% of my tasks come as emails.
Google Broke RTM
However (and this is where my beef with gmail comes in), Google frequently updates the code for gmail, and many times that actually breaks features in the RTM plugin (with over 90 instances of a break and a required RTM fix!). It’s generally only a relatively small break for a day or so. But for for the past three weeks (up until late Monday night), the RTM plugin has been completely down. This is, of course, because of Google’s wide-spread updates and code freeze associated with the release of Buzz, though we had no way of knowing that when the issue first cropped up in the RTM forums.
So it’s mildly frustrating relying so heavily on a plugin that is at the mercy of every minor update pushed by Google. I’m hopeful that Google will try to work more closely with RTM in the future. Or maybe they could improve their own native Tasks application to bring it on par with RTM’s other features (though that’s obviously the more monopolistic solution).
Anyway, I guess the main take-aways here are:
- Buzz is awesome, but Google needs to play nicer with third party applications, especially as we become more reliant on these cloud services for day-to-day work.
- You should try out the RTM Gmail plugin (make sure to use the actual Firefox or Chrome addon, the labs gadget isn’t even close). I don’t know how I kept track of things before it. I’ve definitely had trouble keeping up with tasks over the past three weeks while it went dark (sorry to everyone for that).
I’m a firm believer in metrics. I love tools that help you measure and track things as easily and accurately as possible. This is probably one reason why I’m so interested in inexpensive diagnostics – to enable regular measurement of physiological changes. But today I want to talk about measuring money.
People have tried preparing budgets and tracking spending all kinds of ways, ranging from simple spreadsheets to institution-specific tools to expensive software. There are at least three big issues with these solutions:
- Too much effort | You really just don’t have the time to manually enter all of your purchases, and to update budgets and goals in a manual fashion over time. At best you start off sticking to it but gradually slack off and give up.
- Not enough metrics | These methods generally aren’t very good for organizing purchases and making sure you’re sticking with goals for specific spending categories. This is critical for sifting through the junk to get relevant information.
- Too isolated | These tools tend to sit in a box somewhere. Most likely on your hard drive, though maybe in the cloud if you’re using Google Docs. You would really want something that you could access anywhere, and that could send you relevant notifications related to your spending and upcoming bills.
This is where Mint comes in. I’ve been using it for almost 3 years now (since they started their beta back in the summer of 2007), and I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the features and reliability they offer for tracking your finances. All you do is input the login information you use for each of your online accounts and Mint will automatically import and categorize all of your monthly data in a clean and intuitive interface. Here are some of the best features:
- It puts everything in one place | No more searching for specific purchases on a clunky bank website only to find you can’t actually see more than the past 6 months. Mint keeps all of your transaction histories in one place, with simple search and auto-tagging. It’s really amazing how comprehensive it is. I’ve got bank accounts, credit cards, student loans, and an auto loan all in there. If you happen to have a positive net worth, you can even track all those investments you have.
- It’s automatic | Mint is generally about 90% accurate in categorizing my transactions, making it really simple for me to get a quick look at exactly how much I spend on any particular category in a given time period (for example, how much was spent on fast food over the past year).
- It keeps you in the know | The primary concern I hear is mistrust in a startup to hold their financial information. However, I think Mint increases your security by notifying you of anything fishy going on in your finances. You can set all kinds of alerts based on spending and account balance thresholds, and Mint will let you know by SMS or email if anything unusual happens (still waiting for an Android app, though).
- It helps you budget | The budgeting tools help you keep track of your spending during the month, notifying you if money is disappearing faster than it should. This has helped me scale back spending when necessary.
- It identifies trends | Mint offers some very appealing charts to help visualize your spending by category. This way you can tighten your spending a little in areas that are hurting you most. It also helped me identify a relatively small, but regularly recurring, withdrawal from my account that should have been canceled. I was able to immediately contact the offending company and straighten things out.
For those of you who are concerned about leaving all your financial information in the hands of a startup, it should comfort you a little to know that they’ve been secure for the past 3 years of operation, and were even recently acquired by Intuit, a well-established financial software company. There are tons of reasons to love Mint, and it still surprises me how many of my friends haven’t even heard of it yet. Now you don’t have ignorance as an excuse. Go sign up!