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Hanging on the telephone

Letting your mouth take over the texting chores, and other phone tools.

Back in the mists of time, when the typewriter was considered new technology, secretarial colleges trained people to hit the right keys as a matter of second nature. Nowadays in schools, children use the excellent Type To Learn and other similar programs to locate the home row and bash out text and letters without looking at the keyboard. After a while, it becomes second nature, so that thoughts flow down your spinal column, through your wrists, and just appear as black text on a computer screen. It’s a wonderful Zen thing to experience.

And then you grab a cell phone, and everything you learned about using keyboard to create text goes right out of the window. Every time I try to save a number on my cell phone, I feel like a kindergartner in a computer lab, scanning the keyboard for a letter I recognize. Actually, it’s worse: I feel like a kindergartner with a keyboard three inches square, lacking the hand-eye coordination to hit the buttons properly even when I find them.

And yet the most confident echelons of the geek hierarchy insist on using mobile phones to collect their e-mail. Usually, of course, they use Blackberry or Sidekick phones with QWERTY keypads–but I’ve always found these things are not only expensive, they are actually harder to operate than hitting the 9 key on a phone five times to get a Z. You see, I know how to type, and type fast, on a regular keyboard. I only ever use my thumbs to hit the spacebar.

With a Blackberry, it’s all about the thumbs, and you have to concentrate on the process much harder. I somehow doubt I’ll ever become proficient at sending text messages or replying to e-mail on a Blackberry. And besides, it’s a bulky and ugly excuse for a phone.

That’s why I was so glad to hear about Voice Genesis’s Ve-mail. It’s a combination of software and a $5-a-month service that lets you pick up your e-mail via cell phone and reply to it either in the usual time-consuming way or (and this is the real kicker) by voice. Blast a quick response as if you were leaving a voice-mail message, and Voice Genesis’s messaging servers kick into action. They relay an e-mail with a link to your recorded message (so there’s no bulky e-mail attachment).

Your recipient clicks the link, hears you talk, and if you sound particularly good that day, save the audio file to a local PC. I like it because it takes me at least two minutes to dash off a sentence on a mobile phone, even with predictive text entry turned on. A six-second message is twenty times faster, and while it’s a tad less convenient for its recipient, it beats something with textspeak abbreviations. (Whenever I read the monstrous CUL8R, I think “Not if I see you first.”)

Giving Voice

Voice Genesis’s Ve-mail is both simple and clever. Its message server collects mail from any number of e-mail accounts (from Gmail and Yahoo to your regular Internet provider to your corporate e-mail), and delivers a scrolling list of up to 50 message subject and sender addresses.

Most people on the go only want to deal with important messages, so you can scroll along until you find one, and hit the Select button to bring it over to your phone. Unless you’re particularly astigmatic, the onscreen messages are easy enough to read, and replying to them is a breeze. Press two buttons, speak, press another button…and you’re on to the next message.

Setting up your account is absurdly easy too. Once you’ve subscribed, you download the software to your phone and set up a PIN-protected account on it. Setting up your e-mail accounts is no different from setting them up your e-mail software, and is actually much easier. You pick your e-mail provider from a list that includes AOL, AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Hotmail Plus (not free Hotmail), and a slew of larger ISPs.

If you have your own mail server or use on that’s not on the list, you need to find the POP, SMTP, or IMAP settings for your account to configure it. You then type in your account name and password (always remembering that this is already a password-protected program on your phone, so it’s relatively secure).

There are some drawbacks. Not all cellular services support the feature yet. The big names at press time are Verizon Wireless, Alltel, and Cellular One. And not all phones can handle the software either. But a version of the program that’s ported to Java will enable wider cellphone support and cast the provider net wider.

So that’s it. I spent six agonizing weeks of night school and hours of practicing so that I could type properly, and now, I’m clicking a few phone buttons and speaking my messages into a cellular phone. It’s just as well that cellular providers can’t provide voice-to-text capability with great enough accuracy, or I’d never experience a Zen keyboard moment again.

Ring my bell

Oh, and if typing text on a cell phone sticks in my craw, don’t get me started on ring tones. I loathe hearing sick synthesizer versions of any music. I don’t want my appreciation of the great works of Mozart and Green Day ruined by having tinny 99-cent chip-music downloads stuck in head. So I cheat. I sample the real thing using a service called Xingtone Ringtone Maker. It’s a $20 product that takes audio files from CDs or whatever you record on your own PC, and saves it in ringtone format. On supported phones, you can download the file by following a URL that Xingtone texts to you. Is it frivolous? Yes. Is it better than hearing Mozart on a cheap synth? Oh yes.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.