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stupid phone tricks
i don't need an iphone to prove i'm cool
by dirk cotton

A friend recently expressed astonishment that I don’t own an iPhone.

“You’re the geekiest guy I’ve ever known,” my high school and college classmate explained. “I just assumed you’d have an iPhone.”

Well, I don’t. I don’t need an iPhone to prove I’m cool.

I need an iPad.

I’ve needed reading glasses since I turned forty and I have trouble reading a lot of things on the iPod Touch’s small screen. The iPad has been called a “big iPod Touch” and I don’t consider that a bad thing at all. I can read the iPad’s larger screen without reading glasses.

They should have called it the AARP-pod.

That’s just one of the reasons I don’t favor smart phones. I suppose my biggest complaint is the cost of data plans, since I’d probably be carrying an iPhone if they cost the same as my LG “feature phone”. But, the only bills I resent paying more than my wireless carrier’s are the one’s from my cable TV service.

A smart phone combines a camera, an iPod Touch and a phone, so we only have to carry one device. On the other hand, that makes it possible to lose, break, have stolen or simply run the battery down on all three devices simultaneously. Imagine having to tell the EMT, “I would have called 911 when I was about to be mugged but I had run the battery down watching Dumb and Dumber on this tiny screen.”

Smart phone cameras are a big improvement over those in feature phones, but they aren’t good enough for me. Even if I had one, I’d still carry a camera for anything important.

For now, I prefer a stupid phone to a smart one. I want one that reliably makes phone calls. The one addition I demand is a QWERTY keyboard for texting, also referred to as “SMS” for Short Message Service.

I have found that there a lot of things I can do with a stupid phone with texting and even more that I’m actually willing to do since I got an unlimited texting plan for the family.

Email your phone. You don't need a smart phone to send and receive email so long as they're text-only emails. That's pretty restricting, though. It means no attachments, HTML, or graphics. Most stupid phones will let you send and receive pictures, but not through email.

Most people know that every cell phone with texting capability has an Internet email address. You can send or receive text-only emails subject to the 140-character size limit of text messages.

To send an email to a stupid phone, simply address the message to its phone number at your carrier’s domain name. When I email a text message to my son’s Verizon Wireless phone from my computer, for example, I enter 919xxxyyyy@vtext.com in the email’s To: field. Why fiddle with my phone’s tiny keyboard when I’m near my iMac?

Many websites that send alerts will work just fine if you provide the cell phone’s email address instead of an Internet email address.

Sending an email from most stupid phones is pretty easy, too. You just enter an email address instead of a phone number when sending a text.

Account balance alerts. There are lots of alert services available for a stupid phone and the one I use frequently is a balance alert from our bank for my son’s checking account. He’s in college and uses a debit card. We’ve found that having a balance alert text message sent to his phone first thing every morning helps him avoid overdrafts. (So do the new Federal Reserve banking regulations, by the way.)

Most credit cards offer similar services. I like knowing right away if a large charge is posted to my card, especially since my kids have cards at college, so I have an SMS alert sent to my phone.

Log onto your bank of credit card website from your computer to set these up.

Posting updates to social networking websites. You can also post updates on many social network sites like FaceBook and Twitter with text messages. You first register your phone number with Twitter, FaceBook, Posterous or whatever service you prefer, to associate your account with your mobile phone number, then any text message you send to the social network’s website from that phone will be posted as your update.

After registering, you can send a text to 32665 (which spells FBOOK on your phone's key pad) and your update will appear on your wall along with a little icon saying you posted it from your mobile phone.

32665 is FaceBook’s “short code”. Twitter’s short code is 40404 for the U.S and the process is pretty much the same. These are just short mobile telephone numbers and they work like any 7- or 10-digit phone number.

You can also have other people’s Twitter and FaceBook updates sent to your phone as text messages, but you need to filter out most messages to keep your sanity. You can subscribe to SMS updates on a friend-by-friend basis on FaceBook or Twitter to avoid a deluge of text messages.

I post updates from my cell phone occasionally, like when I'm at a ballgame, but I don’t receive updates from Twitter or FaceBook. It's hard to recall the last time I saw a status message on a social network site that couldn't wait until I got home.

It’s even possible to update status on multiple social network sites simultaneously with a single text message to a website like Posterous.com (41411).

Driving Directions and Traffic. Mapquest and Windows Live Search Maps offer Send to Mobile options that can come in handy. Step-by-step driving directions accessed from your computer can be sent to a cell phone by clicking SEND TO, selecting MOBILE and entering your cell phone number.

If you’re at home, it’s easy enough to print these directions, but I find this feature particularly helpful when my kids call to tell me they left their GPS at home and need to know how to get somewhere.

I could tell them how to get there, but they wouldn’t listen. Then they'd call back a few minutes later and ask me to pause the game on TiVo to tell them again. Their cell phones seem to have more authority than I do and using the back-arrow on the phone to re-read the text is easier than calling home again.

Well, it's easier for me, anyway.

You can receive directions sent via SMS when you’re on the road by texting “directions” followed by the start and stop locations to Google. In fact, there are oodles of things you can do with Google and a text message. Google’s website provides a description and examples, and a neat little virtual cell phone to let you try it out. We often use it on long family drives to settle arguments like “who was the U.S. President with the shortest term?”

Google-phobes and Chinese government officials, by the way, have the option to send a text query to competitor “YAHOO” (92466).

Traffic.com will send SMS alerts based on conditions that you identify on their website from your computer beforehand, like routes you travel and how long a delay warrants an alert.

Flight updates. You can have flight updates pushed to your stupid phone by FlightStats.com if you set tell their website what flights you want to monitor beforehand. If you forget to set it up, or don't want to go to the trouble, you can get the status of any flight by texting the flight number and airline to Google.

Reminders. Google Calendars can send reminders to your SMS-capable phone, but so can services like Kwiry.com. Unless you just hate Google for some reason, they clearly have an advantage in providing most of these services because you only need to remember a single short code, “GOOGLE”, though you could put several of them in your address book. If you forget how to use it, just text HELP.

Managing notes. There are some interesting things you can do with text messages by “ricocheting” a text message off your Twitter account.

I use the Evernote.com website to manage notes and documents. I can text a note to Twitter (40404) with a direct message to @MYEN and the note is posted to Evernote.

For example, I can send the text message “d MYEN There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times” to 40404 and it will get posted to my Evernote site. Anytime I include “@MYEN” in any Tweet from any device, a copy of the Tweet is also posted to my Evernote site. For this service you need to have a Twitter account, then you register your Twitter account at Evernote.com.

Updating or checking to-do lists. The same method works for the online to-do list service I use, Toodledo.Com, except I direct the Tweet to @Toodledo. As with Evernote, you need a Twitter account first, then you register your Twitter account at Toodledo.com.

You have to set up accounts at all of these sites and register your cell phone number before you can use them, but the accounts are free for every service I’ve mentioned. If you have unlimited texting from your wireless carrier, the SMS messages themselves are “free” also, in the sense that you don’t pay for additional messages. If you don’t have unlimited texting, proceed with caution.

Emailing yourself a voice message. Another service I use a lot is Reqall. This isn’t SMS-based, but it is another thing you can do with a stupid phone. You dial Reqall— I have it on speed dial— and leave a voice message that gets translated to text. A text translation is sent to your email account along with an audio file of the recording. I use this to make notes to myself when I’m out and about and I see them next time I check my email.

The audio file is sometimes critical because the text conversion is. . . well, less than perfect. It’s usually close enough to remind me of what I recorded, but when it isn’t I can listen to the voice recording.

The text conversions can be quite entertaining. I recorded a message just today that said, “Labels are 4 inches by 5 inches” and the text conversion in my email box said, “Liberals are 4 inches by 5 inches”, but I knew what I meant.

It also frequently translates "Dirk" as "dork". I really wish they'd fix that.

There are many, many things you could do with simple texting if you actually had a good reason to do them. Texting your zip code to MYSBUX (697289), for example, will retrieve the locations of the three nearest Starbucks, assuming you know what zip code you’re in.

If you don't know, you could text Google the name of the town and something like “Gas”, and the search engine will return the zip code of a nearby gas station and then you could text that to MYSBUX.

I generally find it easier to just drive to the nearest intersection, where a Starbucks will no doubt be located on one or more corners.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton


tweeting too soon
by dirk cotton
topic: tech
published: 10.27.09


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