Photograph via blog.getpebble.com
Catching the next great wave of tech innovation
Most longtime techies will be the first to admit that they live in a constant state of looking out for the the next great wave of technology innovation. Sometimes, you just catch it. And sometimes you gravely misread the movements of the sea. Two of my noticeable misreads were believing IBM’S OS/2 would supplant Windows 95 as the OS to beat in the mid-’90s and, a decade later, hoping that the Nokia 770 – not-quite-tablet and not-quite-phone – would find its way to a mainstream audience. Misses aside, the search for the next great wave is what I find so fun and exhilarating about being in tech. And that is what drew me this past spring to the challenge of giving up my mobile phone altogether while remaining hyperconnected.
At the start of 2016, I found myself with an aging iPhone 4 (2010), a MacBook Air (2011) and an iPad Mini 2 with LTE (2013). The iPhone 4 was slowing down and over time had become a nearly single-function device. It was merely the scrap of metal and glass that I had to carry with me to make and receive phone calls. Every other aspect of my communications and digital life had migrated over to the iPad Mini. I entertained the idea of upgrading to an iPhone 5s so that I could leave my phone in my messenger bag and have all my text messages and phone calls appear on my iPad. The hardware change would have been a zero-cost upgrade through Rogers Wireless, but it would have locked me into another two-year contract. There had to be a better way to go phone-free.
Unfortunately, both Apple and Canada’s behemoth Rogers Wireless seemed bent on me not turning my iPad into the universal communications device I wanted it to become. I took the impediments Apple and Rogers Wireless presented as a personal challenge. And that’s when the solution started to reveal itself.
Introducing the Pebble Time Round
My full-time work is in philanthropy. At GrantBook, I help grantmakers spot the next wave of technology solutions that will help them run more efficient and effective philanthropy processes. It came, therefore, as a pleasant surprise to find that one significant part of my phone-free future had its start in the philanthropic market. Back in 2012 (the same year that my colleague, Anil Patel, and I were starting GrantBook), the Vancouver-born and University of Waterloo-educated Eric Migicovsky was raising money on Kickstarter for a little-known startup called Pebble.
Between April 11, 2012 and May 18, 2012, Migicovsky succeeded in raising $10.3 million in voluntary contributions on the promise that his startup would create a Bluetooth-enabled smartwatch that could send notifications from any iOS or Android device to a user’s wrist. I took note of the campaign at the time and wasn’t alone in celebrating it as the moment crowdfunding (or what we used to call micro-philanthropy) had reached maturity.
Photograph via PC World
To go phone-free, I first needed a device that would alert me to incoming email, social media and calendar notifications as they rolled into my iPad. Otherwise, I would have to choose between routinely pulling my iPad out of my messenger bag to check for new alerts or going into the equivalent of airplane mode for long stretches of the day. The Pebble Time Round solved this problem – and solved it with a design simplicity that frequently draws compliments and questions from people I meet. Whenever a new alert comes into my iPad, I now get a gentle nudge on my wrist and a snippet of text that alerts me to the sender, content and app that generated the message. I now feel more connected and never need to check my phone. In fact, I feel connected enough that I no longer have one to check.
After solving for the notifications challenge, I then needed to figure out what to do with the Rogers Wireless telephone number that I had relied on for more than nine years. Whether we like it or not, social media and messaging platforms have not completely eliminated the need for a phone number. Password recovery and security platforms require a phone number for authentication. Friends and family need a number where they know they can reach you in case of an emergency. Countless life administration tasks – getting a credit card, renewing a driver’s license, filing taxes or signing a lease – still require a phone number on record.
Uncoupling the number from the mobile phone
I had tried various VoiP solutions in the past that included as a free or premium add-on the possibility of creating a new U.S. and Canadian phone number. Until I discovered Waterloo-based Fongo, none of the VoiP platforms I had come across had given me the option of porting my existing Rogers Wireless, Bell or Telus number to their system. Within days of learning about Fongo in April of 2016, I filled out the form on their website, inviting me to port my Rogers Wireless number over to their system. After the porting was complete, and without looking back, I canceled my Rogers Wireless phone plan.
Weeks earlier, I had placed my order for the Pebble Time Round and was waiting for it to arrive from Singapore. When the watch finally arrived, the combination of my newly-unboxed Pebble Time Round, connected via Bluetooth to my iPad Mini with LTE and supported by a Rogers Wireless Tablet Plan, allowed me to step out of my apartment in Toronto with no phone to my name (just an instance of Fongo installed on the iPad). I had succeeded in putting myself in the category of highly-connected techie without a cell phone.
I am happy to report that I have been phone-free since May 18, 2016. That’s the requisite 90 days probation period needed to demonstrate that it’s possible, and I do not see myself going back anytime soon. The greatest benefit is the knowledge that all of my notifications are in one place. I never have to reconcile my phone notifications with my iPad notifications. It’s all on one single screen in my iPad and selectively pushed to my wrist via the Pebble app.
Another benefit is that I am saving $60 per month. Fongo charges me $15 CAD once every six months for unlimited U.S. and Canada text messaging. As needed, I can buy phone credits for making calls to the U.S. and internationally. I purchased a $50 CAD phone credit three months ago and have only used $3.42 CAD in three months. On Fongo, calls to most Canadian cities are free. By contrast, I was often paying over $100 a month to Rogers Wireless for a package that included only one 1GB of data, unlimited texting and unlimited calls. On the Rogers Wireless tablet plan, I now get 5GB of Data for $40 CAD plus tax. Because LTE is so fast, VoiP calls over data through Fongo are almost always just as good as when I used to make calls using my iPhone. And this is to say nothing of the multiple hundreds of dollars I may have spent to upgrade my iPhone 4 to a flagship device if I had chosen to continue living in the phone paradigm.
There have been three small challenges with the new set up. For one, my team members at GrantBook, my friends and my partner often laugh at me when they spot me holding my iPad up to my head for phone calls. This happens very rarely since I’m plugged into a headset for most of my calls. Another challenge is that my iPad isn’t as small as my iPhone. As a result, if I want to be connected, I have to carry one of my two messenger bags with me to store my iPad. Since my iPad had already supplanted my iPhone for most purposes, this was already the case. Finally, initiating calls from Fongo often requires that I copy the number from wherever I have it typed out into Fongo in order to make the call. By contrast, on the iPhone I was able to simply click on a number the iPhone recognized as a phone number and the call would be placed.
These are small irritants against a much brighter backdrop of pushing technology to its limits, integrating a philanthropy-backed device into my core hardware suite and experiencing as an early adopter what I hope will be one of the next great waves of technology innovation – the uncoupling of your phone number from the device you call your phone.