Voxer: free walkie talkie app for smartphones

(For those of you addicted to the podcast, don’t worry! It’s not over yet. I haven’t had a chance to make any more episodes lately but I will resume shortly.)

I often talk to people about Voxer, a free app for smartphones that I find incredibly useful. I am going to describe it in a little more detail, because the official website can be slightly confusing.

The short version: Voxer is a free walkie-talkie app. But that’s just part of the story. Whereas a traditional walkie-talkie, by definition, requires that all parties involved are ‘tuned in’ at the same time, Voxer doesn’t have that requirement, and mixes live broadcasting with traditional audio messaging.

This sets it apart from any other app that supports voice messages, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and whatnot. With those, a 3-minute message requires a 6-minute turnaround time, minimum: 3 minutes for the sender to record it and 3 minutes for the receiver to listen to it, plus whatever time it takes to transmit it. There’s no way around it, as the message needs to be fully delivered in order to be played, and it needs to be fully recorded in order to be delivered in the first place.

Voxer takes a completely different approach. Person A starts recording a message (with no set duration) and Person B receives a notification immediately. At this point, one of three things can happen:

  • Person B already has the Voxer app open when Person A starts talking: the message is played live, with no delay.
  • Person B has the Voxer app closed and only opens it only when Person A is done talking: the message is stored and is essentially a voicemail.
  • Person B opens the Voxer app for instance 1 minute into the recording: Person B starts playing the message form the beginning while Person A keeps recording; of course, Person B will finish listening to the message 1 minute after Person A is done recording.

There are a few caveats, however. First of all, Voxer is not for phone calls: it’s half-duplex, meaning that you either talk or you listen. This is actually a good thing, because it’s more personal than text messages but way less invasive than calls. Also, while on iPhone the default setting is to use the record button in a “sticky” way (tap once to start recording, tap once to stop), which is arguably more convenient, on Android the default setting appears to be push-to-talk (tap and hold to start recording, release to stop); this can be changed in the settings for each individual chat, rather than for the app as a whole.

The app will automatically find your contacts who also use it when you first install it. On Android it does so by reading your contact list and own phone number automatically, while on iOS it asks for you for your number. If you don’t want to do this, you can just use a fake number, such as 555-111-2222 (note however that if anyone has that number in their list, you will show up as a contact to them.)

Other than by matching contacts, you can find people via their Voxer username. By default this is something really ugly such as “johnsmi1234”, but you can change it (or just find out what yours is) by going to “My profile”. Note that in previous versions of Voxer this required a paid subscription, but can now be done for free.

It also supports group chats up to 15 people and Apple Watch for iOS users, and you can exchange images and text messages within the app as well. As a bonus, if you have a headset with an action button (including Bluetooth ones) you can use that to control the recording.

There is also a Pro version that costs $2.99/mo and gives you additional features, but most people will be perfectly fine with the free version if they use Voxer for personal use.

Voxer is available for free for iOS (App Store), Android (Play Store) and Windows Phone (WP Store). Of course, it requires a data connection — Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G/LTE — in order to work.

 

Get rid of those apps in iTunes that you never sync anymore

If you’re like me, you’ve had an iPhone, iPod Touch and/or iPad for a few years now and have probably amassed a fairly big collection of apps, both free and paid. Until last year’s iOS 5, this meant having to keep a local copy of each and one of them on the computer you used to sync your iOS device.

My “Mobile Applications” folder contains 924 items, weighing a whopping 18.78 GB. iTunes only lists 920 apps, so something is out of sync already.
Obviously, I do not use that many apps. My iPhone 4 only has 163, and I could delete many of those as I don’t use them. My father’s iPad, which uses my Apple ID to get apps so that he doesn’t have to purchase the same ones I have already paid for, has about 250, most of them being games he tried once or twice and left there.

I’m about to phase out my glorious 2006 iMac in favor of a new Mac Mini and I’m going to just move the iTunes Library folder; this way, everything is retained and I don’t have to convince a brand new iTunes not to nuke the iPhone and iPad just because they have been synced to a different machines. As for the music itself, I could also use iTunes Match to carry it over, but I’d rather just drop the folder in and be happy about it. The point is that I really don’t want to waste about 20 GB on the new computer for apps I honestly don’t care about.

The most immediate method, deleting the apps from iTunes, kind of works… except that if you delete an app that’s used on your device, it will be removed from that device upon syncing. The proper way to do this would be to manually delete from iTunes the ones you’re not using. There’s a little problem with that: there is absolutely no way of knowing whether any local app is being synced to any device or not, unless you manually check whether every single app is on any of your devices. This sounds dreadful enough with my iPhone, with which I’m very familiar; doing it with my father’s iPad sounds like a nightmare.

Thankfully, after a little searching, I found the way to do it in a much easier fashion. Of course, if you follow these instructions and you delete important data or things like that, I’m not responsible. Do this at your own risk.

I’m using iTunes 10.7 on OS X 10.7 Lion, but it should be the same on OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. When iTunes 11 is released in a few days or weeks, it’s probably going to be much different.

The first, very important thing to do is to disable automatic syncing. To do this, open iTunes’s preferences, go to Devices, and check Prevent iPods, iPhones and iPads from syncing automatically. You can do this even when your device is not connected, but I recommend doing this when it’s already connected so it’s even less likely that something goes wrong.
After you’ve made sure that the new device does not start to sync automatically, go ahead and run a full backup, just in case something goes wrong. Find your device in the sidebar, right click on it, and choose Back Up. It will take a while.
After it’s done backing it up, it’s time to rock and roll.

Click Apps in the the Library section of the side bar, and either choose Select All from the Edit menu, or hit Command-A on your keyboard. Now all your bazillion apps will be selected. You can either delete them, which I do not recommend, or you can move them to a folder. With all of them selected, just drag them into a folder you previously created with the Finder to make a manual backup of all of them. Again, it will take a while. Once all the files are safely copied, you can delete them: just press backspace on your keyboard, or choose Delete from the Edit menu. At this point your may get a scary message warning you that the apps will be deleted from all devices to which they had been copied. Confirm the deletion and move to trash; that’s why you just copied them out.

Now, here’s the nice part. With your device still connected, right click on its name in the sidebar and choose Transfer Purchases. You may be asked for your Apple ID password, and iTunes will make a local copy of all the apps that are currently on your device.
Rinse and repeat for any other extra device, and you’re done: at the end you will only have a local copy of the apps that you currently have on your devices.

If you want to be extra sure that everything has been copied correctly, you may want to run Transfer Purchases again for each device. At the end, you can safely re-enable automatic syncing. If you start the syncing procedure immediately, it should not copy (nor delete!) any apps in any direction, meaning they are already synchronized.

At this point, if you want, you can delete the backup folder you had copied your apps to when you began this whole ordeal. I’d suggest keeping them on a backup disk just in case, but unless the apps are pulled from the App Store, you can safely download them again at no extra cost at any time.

Personally, I ended up recovering about 13 GB by doing this. Not bad, considering that from my point of view those 13 GB were filled with pointless fluff!

And so our story begins…

Earlier today, I joined the iOS Developer Program. After paying my entry fee and patiently waiting for about an hour for the meticulous Apple Robots to type an e-mail, I am now a registered iOS Developer, ready to attack, besiege, seize and conquer the App Store. I am currently targeting iPhone/iPod Touch only, reserving plans to expand to iPad land for later, after feeling the waters.
Stay tuned for updates. I plan to start writing on this blog again soon.

And so our story begins…

Printing in grayscale with AirPrint

Did you all think I was dead? Unfortunately for you, I am not. I’ve just been fairly busy with work and with my renewed interest in photography. Speaking of which, all of you should follow my Flickr photostream, which I update daily.

So, you’ve got the shiny new iOS 4.2 on your iPhone 4 and you have enabled AirPrint sharing on your Mac, using either the free Hacktivator or one of the commercial packages. You are very satisfied (albeit a bit doubtful about actually using it in the future), except for one thing: it prints in color, and you really wish it could print in grayscale, because toner is not cheap.

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Could iOS 4.1 be released on Wednesday?

Apple will hold a music-related event on Wednesday, September 1st. New iPods will be introduced, as it happens yearly. There is strong evidence of a new iPod nano based around the 3×3 cm touch screen seen earlier this year, and possibly a new iPod Touch with 3G data capabilities — essentially a smaller iPad.

This leads me to think that these new units may require iOS 4.1 at minimum, and the new firmware could therefore be made available to iPhones (and older generations of iPod Touches — ok now that’s a weird plural) on the same day.

Of course, the new units may be shipped with a particular version that won’t be made available to other devices, as it was with the iPad: iPhone OS 3.2 was never made available for iPhones, and iPads won’t see iOS 4 until the fall. Apple may also release iOS 4 for iPad on Wednesday, or give a release date. Or perhaps introduce iPad 2 whilst lowering the price of the current iPad, probably giving a refund to angry customers (it has already happened with the original iPhone.) Besides, Apple would get to use the line they love so much: our competitors are still trying to copy version 1, and we have already released version 2.

Personally, I don’t care what new hardware is on the horizon. I just want iOS 4.1 for the iPhone and I want it to make my 3G decent again.

USB ports vs. cigarette lighters in cars

On this blog post (in Italian), Giovanni Fontana wonders why cars still have a cigarette lighter instead of standard power sockets. Most people, he argues, need to connect portable devices to charge than to light up cigarettes, and sockets should at least be an optional replacement for the standard cigarette lighter. Moreover, he continues, the current situation is as weird as having a house full of cigarette lighters requiring an adapter to connect electric devices: wouldn’t it be more logical, he postulates, to have standard sockets requiring an adapter to have a cigarette lighter?

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Righties and lefties

An Italian proverb says that you can’t thread all the weeds in one bunch. It’s exactly what comes to mind when I see people commenting on the iPhone 4 antenna issue by saying that “it only affects left-handed people.”

The basis of such theory is that, since the problem stems from a gap on the lower left side of the phone, it is more likely for left-handed people to trigger it. That may be, but there are many people who are generally right-handed, yet prefer to do things with their left hands. I do, for instance.

I often hold my phone in my left hand in order to use my right hand to navigate it, especially when pinching to zoom. I am also left-eared: for some reason, holding any phone to my right ear feels very innatural to me. Of course, that leads to holding the headset with my left hand, which has the added benefit of leaving my right, dominant hand free. I also open bottles by holding them with my right hand and unscrewing the cap with my left hand, and I bring my left eye to the viewfinder of my reflex camera. On the other hand (pun not absolutely intended), I cannot write with my left hand at all, at least not with a pen: I fare much better using my left index finger on a misty window.

Most of you probably do the same. There is nothing like complete right-handedness and complete left-handedness… or complete ambidexterity, for that matter.

iPhone 4 and iOS 4: my point of view

I have been an Apple user since Summer 2001: after having successfully used Linux as my primary system for a while, one day I decided that there was something wrong with having to manually do many things that a “desktop” system should do on its own. Computers, I thought, were supposed to simplify tasks. While I still think that Linux is great for a server — something I have experience with —, it wasn’t and still isn’t the best choice for everyday computing. Unless you do mostly office work, in which case a distro such as Ubuntu with OpenOffice will work fine, and be entirely free.

For the sake of completeness, here are the machines by Apple I have owned over the better part of the last decade: iMac G3 “Blue Dalmatian”, iBook G3, Airport “Snow” Base Station, PowerMac Dual G4, iBook G4, iMac Intel, MacBook, MacBook Pro, iPhone 3G. What can I say, I am very satisfied with their products, even though I have nothing against alternatives: my current wireless network is provided by a Netgear router and a D-Link access point, for instance.

I didn’t get the original iPhone because it was never officially available in Italy, and I didn’t want to play the cat and mouse game of jailbreaking to make it work. I got the unlocked 3G in September 2008, and have been quite happy with it. Sure, it did have a few strange limitations (tethering, just to name one; something that any Nokia phone has been able to do for years when it was simply called “using your phone as a modem”), but I was quite happy.

Continue reading “iPhone 4 and iOS 4: my point of view”

iPad, iTunes, iPhone OS; or: how you are not forced to use them

One day after the release of the iPad in the United States, reviews are pouring onto American and foreign websites alike. For every person who is amazed by the device, there is someone who is bothered by the Apple buzz. To these I say: what’s the big deal?

I happen to live in the Province of the Empire, in a country I oftentimes call “the third world of technology.” No way to rent movies online – or through the mail, for that matter –, no Pandora.com or Last.fm to easily find new music (the latter is available on a paid-membership basis; the former is simply forbidden), no iBooks when the iPad comes out, and so on. I live in Italy.

I am also a happy Mac and iPhone user. Not an evangelist, not anymore at least: I will praise how durable and enjoyable Apple products are, but I won’t urge anybody to buy them. I will, however, talk about them to people who ask me. After close to ten years as a Mac user (I do remember MacOS 9.2 and MacOS X 10.0) and years of previous experience with Linux systems, Apple has become an invaluable provider of my daily computing. OS X allows me tinker with the underlying UNIX system with ease while being extremely user-friendly with the rest of the user interface. As a web developer, it’s the closest thing to perfection I can think of.

When the iPad was announced, I was following Steve Jobs’s keynote through Engadget. I gradually turned from skeptic to disappointed: what, a big iPhone? A few hours later, a friend of mine summarized such feelings as: “I was hoping for a laptop replacement, and he just announced a tray. An iTray.”

A few days later, however, an article on a blog shone light on the matter: most of us computer people probably wouldn’t have much for a device like that. I’d personally much rather use my 13-inch MacBook Pro rather than an iPad, as it’s a full-fledged computer onto which I can install any program I want, with which I can multitask and that has a physical keyboard. I do sometimes use my MBP on the sofa, and while I agree that it’s not the most perfect experience, I’m willing to trade comfort for power.

People who do not have complex computing needs, though, will love the iPad. Take my father: he inherited the last PC I used, a glorious machine based on an AMD Duron 850 MHz CPU and 512 MB of memory. It runs Windows XP, and it’s far exceeded its time. Components keep breaking, and they are becoming hard to find. Every replacement has to be second-hand, and considering the higher price compared to current parts, it’s probably best to just ditch the machine entirely and build a new one. That was the plan, until the iPad was announced. Continue reading “iPad, iTunes, iPhone OS; or: how you are not forced to use them”