Find My iPhone/Mobile Me for free

Find My iPhone is a neat little app from Apple that allows you to locate your iPhone either from the me.com website or from the Find my iPhone app installed on another iPhone/iPod touch/iPad. Using the website or app you can locate your phone in google maps, remotely lock it, send a message to it or erase it.

The way it works is very tidy – it uses MobileMe set up as an email account on the iDevice to receive and process the requests (locate, lock, erase).  Doing it this way means once set it up on your iPhone it’s always on and doesn’t drain the battery, it just piggybacks onto the MobileMe push mechanisim.

Prior to IOS 4.2 you had to have a paid MobileMe subscription from Apple to use it but now it is free for the 2010 devices (iPhone4, iPad and ipod touch 4th generation). Although it’s not supported on older devices (iPhone 3G/3GS) you can get it working on these by creating and activating your MobileMe account on 2010 device running IOS 4.2, then deleting the account from that device and configuring the older iDevice to use that account.  For details on how to set up Find My iPhone with MobileMe see here, for details on how to get it working on an older iDevice see here.

Just what you need if lose your phone, or it gets nicked, and you want to track it down. However, the main reason I have it is that in April 2011 I’m support crew for Baubre while she runs in the London marathon. As there are approx 40,000 runners and she isn’t all that big I figured she could be hard to find. Not any more – as long as she has her phone I’ll know where she is and I’ll be on the spot doing whatever a support crew does.

The other vital iPhone application for marathon preparation is Runkeeper. This GPS enabled application records where you are going and how fast you are doing it, storing it all locally on the phone and also on the runkeeper.com website.

The evolution of the virtual office – Part 1

This is part one of a series of posts on our experiences in running a virtual office.

The first bit (2002 – 2007)

Like many small businesses today we started out with a couple of PCs running Windows (initially Windows 2000) with Microsoft Office and a multifunction printer networked together using a SOHO router with a four port switch, all set up in the spare room.

Our main business tools were 1) Excel, 2)  Word, 3) Outlook for email and 4) MYOB to run our accounts.  Actually email was probably first on the list. One of the PCs had a shared folder that we kept all our documents on and every week or so we backed up this folder to a CD and stored the CD safely offsite.

This set-up worked well while Baubre was a sole practitioner with a small number of clients but as the business built up we needed to bring on more people to handle the volume of work. We welcomed Sue and we boxed on for a while using email and Excel but it was obvious we couldn’t grow much more with our existing system.

The solution was to implement a full function back office accounting system but these were all LAN based client/server packages designed for an old fashioned office environment and we didn’t want to run a traditional Accountancy firm with an office down town and all the overheads that go with it. In the end we decided to choose the accounting system first and then throw remote access technology at it so we could still run a virtual office where part time or full time staff could work from their homes, just coming into our home office occasionally.

Accounting systems back then were not very exciting and there wasn’t a lot of choice so in the end we went for the system used by most small and medium sized accountancy firms in Australasia at the time – MYOB Accountants Office (AO). To support it we invested in some technology…

  1. We registered the dowsemurray.co.nz domain name, put in a Dell Server running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 and migrated our email to Microsoft Exchange and our documents to an “office” share on the server.
  2. Backups were automated to backup to DVD (we had out grown CD’s by then) each night with a friendly emailed reminder to take the weekly backup off-site.
  3. Our two PC’s joined the Windows Active Directory domain and we used group policies on the server to standardise the desktop.  We also bought a couple of laptops and added them to the domain. By this stage all PC’s and laptops were running Windows XP.
  4. We added three more PC’s to the internal network without screens or keyboards. The Small Business Server has a facility where you can access a web page on the server from the Internet and then logon and connect to and take over the desktop on the internal network using Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). We used this to provide remote staff access to the headless PC’s.

With the server and remote access in place we installed MYOB AO onto the file share with the AO client programme installed on each PC and remote staff coming in via the SBS Remote Web Workplace to use their “own” PC in the office. We could of course have achieved a similar result using AO installed on a Microsoft Terminal Server rather than using dedicated remote PC’s but I’ve worked with Terminal Servers for years, way back from pre NT 4.0 days when it was Citrix Winframe, and as a solution for a small office it’s overkill – unnecessary complexity and cost.

We also put in a work phone and fax line and built the dowsemurray.co.nz website and hosted it on our Small Business Server.

And it all worked! It took a bit of time to tame Accountants Office but once we had the chart of accounts standardised and reporting to match it did a good job of producing year end financial reports. The remote access was functional and fast enough and we kept growing and adding more remote staff as the client base grew.

Coming up next – virtualising the virtual office.

iPhone4 vs iPhone3GS – making the case for an upgrade

I loved my iPhone 3GS – except on those occasions when I left town and dropped off Vodafones 3G network. Worse than that in some out of the way locations like Waikanae Beach I couldn’t even reliably make or take calls on the 2G network.

The problem is that the iPhone 3G’s are 3G tri-band phones that operate on 850, 1900 and 2100 MHz. The Vodfone 3G network operates on 2100 (metro areas) and 900 (everywhere else).  The much maligned Telecom XT network runs 850 and 2100 making it a very good option for an iPhone 3G/GS.

The iPhone 4 is a quad band phone and runs on 900 Mhz (plus 850, 1900 and 2100) so it will have 3G everywhere there is a Vodafone network.

A quick bit of number crunching showed me that it was marginally cheaper for me to sell my iPhone 3GS and buy an iPhone 4 outright rather than break my Vodafone contract and switch to Telecom.  I was too early in the Vodafone plan to upgrade and I didn’t want to lock myself in for two years again as mobile rates are going to drop lots in the next year or two making some plans look very expensive.

After making the change and owning the iPhone4 for what seems like a lifetime but is actually 3 weeks I can say this:

  1. 3G coverage much improved – no issues there now.
  2. Battery life is much improved.  Running my Bria VOIP app on the 3GS by 5pm I’d be down to 30%, on the 4 it’s 5pm and 70%.
  3. The photos are definitely better and the flash very handy.
  4. Yes there is a grip of death problem – bridge the two aerials with your hand as I naturally do and the bars drop from 4 or 5 to 1. Calls didn’t drop out but data rates died. This was fixed by an Incase Snap under the iPhone case programme. The smoke coloured case hardly looks like it is there. Incidentally the iPhone 3G also drops bars when you grip it tightly – just not quite to the extent that the iPhone 4 does.
  5. Apps start a bit faster.
  6. The design is a triumph of form over function but you get to like it – functionally the iPhone 3 has it all over the iPhone 4 – with the iPhone 3 you can tell which way it is facing when it’s in your pocket and you don’t need a case.

Bring on the iPhone 5….

iPhone battery drain problem

Doing nothing special our iPhones drain their batteries at between 2% and 4% per hour so we usually charge them each night. However a couple of days ago they started eating battery at the rate of about 15% per hour which caused much distress in our household especially as it just so happened that I had upgraded the IOS to 4.02 around that time and also installed an update to the Bria iPhone VOIP client. I had broken the fundamental IT rule of change one thing at a time.

It seems from Mr Google that battery drain isn’t an uncommon problem on iPhones and there are multiple causes including dud batteries, errant applications not going to sleep properly with IOS 4, hungry VOIP applications and IOS 4 timeout too low talking to MS Exchange. One thing that did seem to fix a lot of the problems was restoring the iPhone to factory defaults and in the end I had to do this and it did fix the problem – until I configured the email that is and then it was deja vu all over again.

The problem it turned out was that I’d made a third change that day, I’d applied some Windows security patches the our Exchange server and one of them had crippled Activesync. I guess the phones were continually connecting to email to download mail. The fix here followed by a restart of the server fixed the problem.

From now on its strictly one change at a time.

Our VOIP Phone System

We have recently moved  our phones from TelstraClear to 2talk using Voice Over IP (VOIP).  Our phones now run over the Internet and in the process I’ve learn’t a lot about VOIP.

Why VOIP?

  • It’s fun
  • It’s flexible
  • And you might even save some money (but don’t count on it)

Before the switch we had two land lines from TelstraClear – one for home and one for the business – plus a fax number that was a distinctive ring service on the business line with faxes answered by a fax modem and routed to our email system. We also had a cable Internet connection but no cable TV (we ditched that for Freeview a while back, that’s another story).

We (Dowse Murray Chartered Accountants) have grown a quite a bit over the last few years and we really needed more business phone lines (more than one) – it’s very easy to tie up a single line talking to IRD. We also needed to put a phone line into our second office and have DDI’s and be able to transfer calls – i.e we needed a PABX with at least three lines.

I also thought it would be cool to be able to use my iPhone as an extension on our phone system. As we have a reasonable cable Internet connection I figured that if we implemented a VOIP solution we could ditch our phone lines completely and as long as we could use our iPhones as handsets over 3G then if the Internet went down we would still have phones.

So what we needed to make it all work was a VOIP provider, some VOIP phones for home and office, a fax service, a VOIP client for the iPhones and to be able to keep our existing 04 phone numbers. With a bit of help from Mr Google we got all this – read on…

VOIP Provider

www.2talk.co.nz. 2talk are a New Zealand Internet Telephony company that sell VOIP services, from what I can see they are no 1 in this space in NZ. You can sign up for a plan with them or pay as you go.

I started with the free plan which gives you as many 028 numbers as you want (calls to 028 numbers are charged at mobile rates) and 15 minutes free calling to landlines in NZ per month. After that it’s 3c a minute local, national and most international destinations and 24c a minute to NZ mobiles. Local numbers (e.g. 04 for Wellington) can be added for $7 per month each. All prices inc GST,  auto-topup from your credit card.

I used the free plan for a few days while I tested out the functionality 2Talk offered. It’s very functional, you can pretty well do anything with it that a full function PABX can do and all from their website. I spent many hours playing with it – too many – we had phones ringing all over the office night and day while I  worked out the best set-up for us. Very annoying for everyone around me but I had lots of fun.

The features I liked the most (in no particular order) were:

  • Voicemail can be received via email
  • Incoming faxes can go to email
  • Self provisioning – you can add/remove lines and change your plan online – btw you only see a few plans on the 2talk sign up page but once logged on if you take the option to change your plan you can see all the available plans
  • The locate me service – you can configure a number to automatically ring other numbers (2talk or non 2talk) after a configurable delay
  • The one number service – you can have multiple phones logged onto the one 2talk number
  • Whitepages reverse lookup – incoming calls display the name of the caller as listed in the whitepages
  • You can set the callerid per line to any of the numbers on your 2talk account, and also to verified non 2talk numbers

The monthly plan we now have gives us three local (04) numbers with 6000 local minutes (although it doesn’t seem to be metered so is unlimited),  2000 international minutes and 100 mobiles minutes for $45.  If we use up these then it’s 3c a minute local, national and most international destinations and 24c a minute to NZ mobiles. We added a fourth 04 number to use as a DDI for an additional $7 per month.

By using a combination of locate me, one number, 04 and 028 numbers with the callerid set to be the main business number we have no limits on the concurrent number of incoming and outgoing calls – we are only limited by the number of humans there are to answer our phones.

VOIP Phones

For VOIP phones I found www.nicegear.co.nz who specialised in VOIP solutions. Hadley from Nicegear recommended a Siemens Gigaset A580IP cordless VOIP phone which I duly purchased with a second handset and then duly returned a week or two later. Nice guys there – no problem sending it back minus the restocking fee.

The problem with the Siemens wasn’t functionality – it worked well – it’s just nobody here liked the handsets. Unergonomic, sound very average and very light and plastically feeling. We have always used reasonable quality Panasonic DCET phones and the Siemens was a very poor alternative. At Hadley’s suggestion I did register one of the Panasonic handsets we have with the Siemens base and it worked after a fashion. However there was no dial tone (possibly because the Panasonic was a couple of years old and didn’t do the DCET generic access protocol thing too well) and no voice message indicator so I gave up on that idea.

In the end I purchased a Linksys SPA2102 from Nicegear – this is an analog phone to VOIP adapter and has two phone/fax ports. I configured it as per the guide from the 2talk support page, plugged in our existing Panasonic DCET and it just worked. As with most Cisco products these SPA’s have a huge amount of configuration options so the 2talk guide was really useful. The call quality was comparable to our land lines but there were a few differences in dial tone and handset volume. After a bit of trial and error and lots of ringing of phones I fine tuned the configuration – you can download a copy of our version of the 2talk configuration document here.

FAX

Incoming faxes were easy – I just configured the service to send them to an email address as PDF’s – pretty much what our old system was doing. However outgoing faxes were a bit harder. I couldn’t get the 2talk email a PDF to a fax number working reliably, I think part of the problem was the service didn’t like the PDF’s our PDF creator was generating.

As we don’t send a lot of faxes anyway these days and when we do it easier to just put them through a fax machine I decided I’d configure the second port of the SPA as a fax port, plug the fax into it and send through there. I just couldn’t get it working reliably, one or two pages seemed to be the limit regardless of how I configured the SPA. The 2talk forums seemed to indicate that the faxing was marginal at best and I was on the point of giving up when I came across a post that mentioned the SPA’s shipped with quite old versions of firmware. I upgraded the firmware and problem fixed!

iPhone VOIP Client

The ideal iPhone VOIP client works over WIFI and 3G, is integrated with the iPhone contacts, supports multiple SIP accounts and will run in the background to accept incoming calls.

2talk have a free SIP client which is fine for testing but it doesn’t run in the background or support multiple accounts. I tried all the free SIP clients I could find in the App Store but none of them were much better than the 2talk app. Of the paid for apps Acrobits Softphone and Bria got good reviews. Acrobits had been around a while and supported push notification, Bria was very new and didn’t.

I bought Acrobits and it worked but not as well as I had hoped, some quality problems and big delays connecting so you missed the first few words of whoever answered the phone plus the dial tones weren’t right. $10.99 wasted. There is another client from Acrobits called Groundwire that I haven’t tried.

Bria had only been out a week or two and was on special for $5.99 so I bought it. A fantastic client, it seems to work perfectly with 2talk. No delays, good quality over WIFI and 3G, nice interface and although the first version didn’t work in background mode or support multiple accounts a new version is out now that does. The only problem is that when in background mode it eats battery life – about 5% per hour as it has to keep listening for UDP connections. It’s the same with Skype (but not necessarily Acrobits as it can use notifications).

What I have now is Bria configured to logon to our work number (one number handset), our home phone (one number handset) and my 028 number. When I’m in the office I start Bria and my iPhone becomes another phone off our main number that will ring when a call comes in. I use the 028 number (callerid set to the main work number) for outgoing calls so don’t tie up the main number. It works well over WIFI and as long as there is good reception, calls over 3G are just as good.

Bria iPhone app

Porting Numbers to 2talk

I was a bit wary about porting our three phone numbers (home, work, fax) so I ported the home phone first.

It’s all done via the 2talk website, you request a port and it comes back a few days later with the date it will happen. The port was scheduled for about a week after I requested it and that morning I got an email telling me the number had been provisioned ahead of time so I could set it up before the cutover happened. I had the SPA ready to go so it was just a matter of putting in the number and password and it was working for outgoing calls. At this stage incoming calls were still coming into the land line. I set up voice mail and then wandered off and later that day the new phone rang. Incoming call, someone in Queensland trying to sell me a holiday.

It took a day for all calls to some in on the new phone and then a couple of days later TelstraClear cut off the old line. I left it a week to make sure we were all happy with it then ported the work phone and fax across. As far as I can tell there was no downtime.

A Month Later

Two things I would do differently:

  1. Get an 04 number before testing calls to 2talk. I ended up making quite a few calls to the 028 number at mobile charges.
  2. Switch the monitored alarm system to a wireless system before cutting off the land line it used.

Generally quality is as good as a land line (using the G711 codec) but one or two callers get an echo on the line.

Capital cost – we spent about $600 on three SPA’s and some new DCET phones, plus another $500 switching our alarm to run over VHF. Ongoing costs have reduced by maybe $50 per month even after increasing our Internet plan to 50GB a month (calls run at about 120MB/hour), more phone “lines”, and paying extra for the VHF alarm monitoring.

I don’t think we would have done this over ADSL as 1) we would have had to keep one phone line so less savings and 2) latency is higher on ADSL so call quality may not have been as good.

* One more thing to avoid – testing the home phone at 1am with the other extension next to the bed where Baubre is asleep.

Three Months Later

One more gotcha – our directory listing disappeared from the white and yellow pages after porting our numbers to 2talk. We found this out when the new phone books arrived. A call to yellow pages on their 0800 number has reinstated us in the online directory but we have missed out being in the printed copy this year.

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