PDAs Go The (Long) Distance

By pairing the right PDA with the right voice-over-IP (VoIP) software, you can turn your customers' PDAs into superportable Wi-Fi phones, allowing them to make free calls to similar users. Alternatively, they can make super-cheap long-distance calls directly to any phone number anywhere in the world.

Since a PDA is technically just another computer, the whole setup works like a desktop/laptop scenario--with one major enhancement: It's highly portable. To make this work, you will need a desktop computer, a PDA with a fast processor and Microsoft's PocketPC OS, a pair of good headphones or earbuds, and an account for free calling software, such as what's offered by Skype or StanaPhone.

More specifically, the PDA needs a 400-MHz or better processor. While there are now 520-MHz and 624-MHz models available, in my tests, a slower 400-MHz PDA worked just fine. For this recipe, I used an HP iPaq Pocket PC 4155. This PDA includes the Microsoft Pocket PC 2003 OS, a 400-MHz Intel X-Scale processor, 64 MB of SDRAM and 32 MB of ROM.

Getting Started

Sponsored post

Now that you have all your ingredients assembled, you will need to get the PDA running, cradle it and then install the Skype or StanaPhone client software. To do so, first physically connect the PDA cradle to the PC. Install the PDA's synchronization software on the PC (if it isn't installed already). Boot up the Pocket PC OS, go through the simple personalization and setup procedures, and place the PDA in its cradle.

Using the PC's browser, go to either www.skype.com or www.stanaphone.com to download the software and install it on the PDA. (The PDA must be in the cradle for this to work.)

Users can find wireless networks in many places--in their own offices, of course, but also in Starbucks, cyber-cafŽs and airport lounges.

While the Pocket PC OS allows your clients to see wireless networks and their relative strengths, I've found a better product that performs this more comprehensively and with better at-a-glance icons. It's called pocketWinc. This tool's on-screen icons tell you which hotspots are strongest and whether they have Web connectivity. Of course, your customers can still find wireless networks using the Microsoft Pocket PC 2003 OS. But the pocketWinc application is more robust and customizable.

Once your client has found a wireless connection, he will need to connect to it; make sure his router and access points are impervious to rogue Wi-Fi surfers. Next, proceed to use Skype or StanaPhone. Simply launch either program from Start/Programs.

Once a user is logged in with his ID and password, he can call fellow Skype users for free--no matter where they are on the planet. Also, by clicking on the contacts tab, a user can see who is online at any given time. When a Skype user dials a non-Skype phone number, charges will be incurred.

But Skype has one serious limitation. Currently, while Skype users can call non-Skype phones, they cannot receive calls from non-Skype phones. Skype is working on this, however, and the feature already has a name: SkypeIn.

StanaPhone essentially follows the same protocol, though it has solved the call-receiving problem. StanaPhone gives subscribers an actual phone number rather than a user name, so users can receive calls to that number. When someone calls you, your PDA rings--as long as you're running StanaPhone. This means StanaPhone users can accept calls from any mobile, land-line, or VoIP phone.

Phil Dunn ([email protected]) is a technology journalist and independent communications consultant for high-tech companies.