Sunday, November 10, 2013

Expat tech

expat techIn eight years living overseas, I’ve found that two truths hold when it comes to understanding technology.  First, the best investigations are driven by trying to satisfy a particular desire.  How can I send a text to a friends phone from my Nexus?  How do I set up a local WiFi network for my computer using a 3G data link from the phone or tablet?  And, every expat’s dream, How can I watch US or British TV from the Netherlands?

The second truth is that I always end up solving a different problem than the one I set out to fix.

Warning:  This essay is a bit geeky, but it has a good payoff.  Skip towards the bottom if you glaze over when communication apps and internet protocols are discussed.

I have always been loyal to the Microsoft ecosystem.  I began with DOS and Visual C, and rely on Office, Live Mail, Writer, and Photo Gallery for everyday work.  I understand the myriad configuration and troubleshooting techniques and am a paid member of TechNet.

But during the past couple of years, past Windows 7 and the new Office ribbon, Microsoft has been more of an annoyance than a  leader.  Windows 8 is unusable, with buggy and missing drivers that made my computer useless.  Applications and utilities have been dumbed-down, performance has suffered, features have disappeared, products that I rely on have been orphaned.  Corporate intrigue and failed strategy is  more of an obsession in Redmond than than product quality and innovation.

Honestly, Google is doing more cutting edge and reliable work.  So I am spending more and more time with their systems and apps.

So it became my desire was to get Google Voice running. Voice is an audio/video telephone and messaging utility for making cheap calls, conferencing, and sharing data.  Beyond what Skype provides, it has some interesting transcription and translation capabilities linked to email and voicemail.

Armed with instructions and my Gmail / Google+ account information, I tried to get it working…

…and immediately ran into my first issue: Voice is only available to US people with US phone numbers.

The first problem is solved by setting up a VPN service. This establishes a tunnel from the Netherlands to the Internet via another computer.  The Internet thinks my geography is where the linked computer is located (in this case, San Jose).

For the US-based phone number, I tried to set up a  temporary US-based number using a SIP provider, tying that service to a separately generated US phone number.

All good (and fascinating), but the insolvable issue turned out to be finding a PC-based SoftPhone utility that would talk to the SIP provider.  I tried one package after another, but none connected and all messed with low-level functions and firewalls in my PC in scary ways.

After a couple of hours fiddling and rebooting, I gave up. The (simple) alternative was to call a friend in the US, and let Google validate the account through their (unused) landline.

So, as per Truth 1, I learned a lot about VoiP technology in my failed attempt to get it running (it’s as complex as SWIFT/BIC /IBAN international electronic banking).

And, as per Truth 2, I discovered something else wonderful.

I used HotSpot Shield to set up the VPN.  The utility is (mis)marketed as away to make surfing anonymous, but it’s actually an effective way to drop a VPN into Britain, the US, and Japan.  This is very slick: I switch it on, tell it to connect to Britain, and I’m streaming MasterChef Pro.  Switch to the US, and I can watch The Amazing Race.

It is dead simple and effective, the best solution for accessing media in another country that I’ve seen.  I paid for a 1–year subscription after two hours of testing it, getting a license for 5 machines so that I can run it on my  Nexus and my phone as well.

Google Voice can wait for another day…

*** As always, I have neither been asked nor incentivized to write about any product mentioned here.  he pinions reflect my own experiences and opinions, and I pay for all software that I use.

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