Thanksgiving, is it? Well, despite occasional headaches, technology has also brought us plenty to be thankful for: safety, convenience and entertainment on the go. Next time you’re running late, lost or lonely, ask yourself: aren’t you grateful for your cellphone?
Actually, don’t answer yet. With every passing month, cellphones are becoming even more useful. Sure, it’s nice that they let you call people from the road. But lately, their reach has grown, thanks to clever programmers making links between the cellular world and the Internet.
Here, for your gratitude-generating pleasure, is a rundown of some of the most exciting and powerful services awaiting your cellphone at this very moment. Better yet, at the moment, they’re all free.
FREE DIRECTORY ASSISTANCE By this time, it’s quite clear that nobody with a “$50 a month” calling plan actually pays only $50 a month. The cellphone companies will do anything to puff up your bill — like charging you $1.50 or $2 every time you dial 411 to find a phone number.
Try 800-FREE-411 (800-373-3411) instead. A computer or human being looks up a number for you at no charge, once you’ve listened to a 20-second ad. It’s a classic time-for-money swap.
Or, for an ad-free option, there is a little-known Google service. Send a text message to 46645 (that’s “Google”; leave off the last E for efficiency). In the body of the message, type what you’re looking for, like “Roger McBride 10025” or “chiropractor dallas tx.” Seconds later, you get a return message from Google, complete with the name, address, and phone number.
FREE ANSWERS Google’s 46645 text-messaging service can fetch much more than phone numbers. It can also send you the weather report (in the body, type, for example, “weather sacramento”), stock quotes (“amzn”), where a movie is showing nearby (type “flushed away 44120”), what a word means (“define schadenfreude”), driving directions (“miami fl to 60609”), unit conversions (“liters in 5 gallons”), currency conversions (“25 usd in euros”), and so on.
Every cell carrier charges for text messages — about 10 cents each, unless you have a plan that includes them. But Google itself doesn’t charge for any of this. It’s not only ad-free, it’s free free.
If you prefer conducting your research missions by voice, call 800-555-TELL (800-555-8355). A cheerful recorded voice invites you to say “Travel,” “Traffic,” “News Center,” “Stock Quotes,” and so on. The system is smart enough to know your location, which pays off when you say “Movies,” “Restaurants,” “Driving directions” or “Taxi.” (This service, run by Tellme Networks as a showcase for its corporate voice-recognition technology, also lets you say “Time” when you’re setting your watch — a blast from phone companies past.)
FREE INTERNATIONAL CALLS You can now call any of 50 countries from the United States, free. Talk as long as you like. You pay only for a call to the access number in Iowa, which is 712-858-8883; if you use your cellphone on nights or weekends, even that’s a free call.
There’s no contract, no ads, nothing to sign up for. At the prompt, press 1 for English. Then punch in 011, the country code and the phone number. The call rings through immediately.
Fine print: In some countries, you can reach only landlines, not cellphones. And in part because FuturePhone’s lines have been flooded, its success at placing calls is not, ahem, 100 percent.
But it’s hard to argue with “free,” which, according to the company, it will be until at least 2010.
FREE ‘PINGS’ Pinger is a new way to reach someone: a method that combines the immediacy of a text message with the personality of voice mail. (You can sign up at Pinger.com.) You call one of Pinger’s access numbers, say the name of the person you’re calling, and then speak a message.
Suppose you’ve just pinged your sister. She receives a text message to let her know. With one keystroke, she can hear your message — and with another, send a voice reply. There’s no waiting to roll over to voice mail, no listening to instructions, no outbound greetings.
Because Pinger is much faster and more direct than voice mail, it’s great for sending quick voice notes when you’re driving or walking between meetings. It’s also ideal when you can’t risk being stuck in a 20-minute conversation with no polite way out.
Bonus features: You can broadcast a message to a whole group at once (“
girl, seven pounds — mom doing well!”), forward a message to a third party (any cellphone carrier), or retrieve and manage your messages on the Web.
Pinger is free until the new year. Even then, you’ll get 10 or 20 free pings a month (details aren’t complete); additional pings will cost a few cents each. Pinger says it’s working to fix the biggest downside, which is that you can’t ping someone’s phone (only the person’s e-mail address) until they’ve signed up for a free account.
FREE FUN YouMail, also in beta testing, is also dissatisfied with traditional voice mail. Its solution, though, is a complete surgical replacement of your carrier’s voice mail system. When you sign up at youmail.com, you’re instructed to reprogram your cellphone by typing in a series of codes. When it’s over, YouMail is your voice-mail service — not your cell carrier.
Why bother? First, because you can record a separate greeting for everyone you know. Your boss will hear you say: “This is Casey Robin, systems manager at Globodyne Technology. I’ll get back to you promptly. After all — your business is our business.”
Your love interest, however, will hear: “Hey there, huggalump. Miss you. Leave me a massage.”
(Hint: Don’t mix them up.)
You can even treat certain callers to something called Ditchmail. That’s when they hear, “This user is currently not accepting new messages. Goodbye!” (Disgruntled exes come to mind.)
For everyone else, you just record a generic greeting. You can also check your messages from the Web or any phone, save memorable ones to your computer, and forward messages to other people.
The Web site is still glitchy — for starters, a fix for Macs is in the works — and switching back to your old voice mail if you don’t care for YouMail isn’t exactly a one-click operation. But over all, YouMail is fun, and it has real uses; for example, you can let your friends know that you’re away on vacation, but not people who don’t need to know.
YouMail, too, is free during its testing phase; after the new year, it will be free if you’re willing to endure ads, and a few dollars a month otherwise. Note that YouMail isn’t ideal if you have Sprint, which charges you for “conditional forwarding” — a feature that YouMail requires.
Frankly, it is worth a few dollars to escape the minutes-burning, recorded instructions of cellular voice mail systems: “To leave a message, speak at the tone. When you’re finished, you may hang up ... .”
FREE PRICE COMPARISONS As you head out to the seething malls for holiday shopping, your cellphone can do more than tell your family you’re stuck in traffic. It can also save you money.
As you inspect something you’re tempted to buy, dial 888-Do-Frucall (888-363-7822; leave off the last two L’s for — well, for now). When prompted, plug in the bar code on the package. After a 10-second ad, a voice is usually successful in identifying the item by name (“Luv’s Diapers Value Pack, 208 Diapers Variation — not available used”), and provides the prices from three sample online stores.
It’s a disruptive little technology — doomsday, really, to a “we’ll beat any price” retailer. Frankly, the whole comparison concept seems a little unfair: How is a physical store supposed to match the prices of online outfits with much lower expenses for rent, clerks, taxes and so on?
Still, Frucall may let you know when you’re about to make an expensive mistake, and occasionally provide ammo for negotiating.
All right, it’s a stretch to think that you’ll be making free services like these part of your official, solemn, dinnertime thanksgiving. But it’s entirely possible that they may one day get you out of a pinch or save you a little time or money. Surely that will merit at least a little “Hey, thanks!” in your head.
By DAVID POGUE - New York Times