Category: Internet/Web

Travelin’ Man 3: Securing a PBX in a Flash or VoIP in the Cloud Server

UPDATE: Be sure to read about the latest enhancement to Travelin' Man 3 here.

We're big fans of playing with our own VoIP hardware. It has the advantage of allowing the installation of everything behind a secure, hardware-based firewall thereby eliminating almost all of the security issues associated with VoIP telephony. With PBX in a Flash™ and its Zero Internet Footprint™, you can run a secure VoIP server in your home or office with no port exposure to the Internet. This setup, of course, assumes that you have the necessary bandwidth to support Internet telephony and that you possess the necessary skill set to maintain your own Linux® server running Asterisk®, FreePBX®, Apache®, SendMail®, PHP®, and on and on. Not everyone does. And, of course, there are thousands of organizations in which employees and their phones are not colocated with the home office VoIP communications server. And, believe it or not, there are folks that run their VoIP server on the public Internet without any firewall protection. For all of you, today's your lucky day.

Lest you think that we've bitten off more than we can chew, we want to acknowledge the dozens of thought-provoking comments on the PIAF Forums that ultimately led to today's new release. That is the hidden beauty of open source development. So, thank you dad311, atsak, tbrummell, Hyksos, markieb, Ramblin, darmock, lowno, blanchae, bmore, vcallaway, jroper, mag, briankelly63, mbellot, phonebuff, The Deacon, Astrosmurfer, frontline, ou812, LostTrunk, lgaetz, kh40s, rossiv, and all of our other gurus that make the PIAF Forums a great place to learn something new every day.

Thanks to our good friends at RentPBX, who provide terrific technical and financial support to both Nerd Vittles and the PBX in a Flash project, you don't have to roll your own. And your phones can be anywhere because your communications server sits on the public Internet. If cost is a factor or for those outside the United States that need a U.S. presence to take advantage of services such as Google Voice, the $15 a month price point using the PIAF2012 coupon code makes RentPBX more than competitive with what it would cost you in electricity, Internet bandwidth, and hardware resources to do it yourself... minus the headaches. You get a stable PBX in a Flash or Incredible PBX platform from the git-go. In addition, issues of jitter and latency all but disappear from the VoIP equation because you can choose the site of your hosted PBX from a worldwide list of Internet POPs including five regions in the U.S. as well as Canada and Europe. Many sit within a few milliseconds of the Internet backbone.

What you don't have with a hosted PBX solution is a hardware-based firewall sitting between your server and the Big, Bad Internet. With PBX in a Flash, the risk is lessened because the IPtables Linux Firewall is baked into the fabric of PBX in a Flash. For a comprehensive overview of how IPtables works, read this article. It explains IPtables better than any book you could buy.

Today we're pleased to introduce Travelin' Man 3™, a completely new security methodology based upon FQDN Whitelists and DDNS. In a nutshell, you get set-it-and-forget-it convenience and rock-solid VoIP security for your Cloud-based PBX or any PBX in a Flash server that's lacking a hardware-based firewall and you get both transparent connectivity and security for your mobile or remote workforce. We'll quickly cover the mechanics of this new IPtables methodology that allows you to secure your hosted PBX without compromising flexibility. The nitty gritty details of IPtables and firewalls we'll leave for you to explore at your leisure.

And, speaking of leisure, we always get the question: "Have you tested it?" For frequent readers of Nerd Vittles, you already know the answer. We eat our own dog food! In the case of Travelin' Man 3, we gave it a healthy workout just last week from the deck of the Carnival Fantasy as we passed by Cape Canaveral and in Key West with 4G service, and finally in several ports with WiFi access in the Bahamas. The beauty of the new design is you'll know instantly if it's not working because you'll never get your VoIP SIP phone to connect back to your VoIP server. We had zero problems using nothing more than an Android phone for both DynDNS updates and Bria SIP phone service. Being a pioneer isn't always easy, but... Somebody's gotta do it™. :wink:

Unlike previous iterations of Travelin' Man, version 3 lets you configure remote phone access from the server and keep one or hundreds of phones in sync even with changing IP addresses using dynamic DNS update software at the sites of the remote phones. Whether the site is a remote office or a floating hotel room, any PC or Mac whether it's a desktop or netbook can automatically manage the dynamic DNS updates while keeping all of the local phones securely connected to the VoIP Cloud. And any jail-broken iPhone can manage the updates as well. With Android phones, it's even better. You have your pick of several great apps: DynDNS Client, Dynamic DNS Client, or Dynamic DNS Updater. We've found the DynDNS Client to be nearly perfect. As we'll explain in a minute, this version of Travelin' Man is not compatible with prior versions so you'll need to choose either the manual methodology of previous iterations or version 3 which does it automagically.

A New Approach to WhiteLists. Our new approach to IPtables is to lock down your server using a WhiteList of safe IP addresses and fully-qualified domain names (FQDNs) that should be given access to your hosted VoIP server. Then we'll periodically check to see if the IP addresses associated with the FQDNs have changed and make the necessary adjustments automatically. If any intruder attempts to access any port on your PBX, their packets are simply discarded by IPtables so the bad guys never know your server exists.

We've experimented with BlackLists for VoIP security, and the bottom line is they just don't work because of inherent problems with reliability and completeness. You spend your entire day updating lists of the bad guys only to discover that they've morphed to thousands of new IP addresses. Think Whack-A-Mole. IP addresses can easily be changed, and zombies have made attacks from third-party PCs a daily occurrence. Earlier this month, Nerd Vittles was hit with a denial of service attack from 30,000+ zombie PCs. This was in spite of the fact that we already block well over 100,000 IP addresses with the world's finest blacklists. Now it's 130,000. :roll: Of course, none of the owners of these PCs had any idea how their computers were being used. I'm reminded of a famous judge's secretary who received a knock at her door one Sunday morning from the FBI. They informed her that she was using her computer to host porno movie downloads. I won't offend your tender sensibilities by repeating what she actually told those "young men."

There's also the problem of dynamic IP addresses which means an address that was used by a bad guy yesterday may be handed out by the same ISP to your grandma tomorrow. And it didn't take the bad guys long to poison blacklists with IP addresses that you actually need for services such as DNS or network time services. If you've ever had an IP address that ended up on one of the major blacklists, you know what a hassle it is to get your IP address unBlacklisted. The Soup Nazi has nothing on these folks.

Bottom Line: Public web sites are pretty much forced to use BlackLists because they want their sites to be generally accessible. With a VoIP server, we have the luxury of choice, and WhiteLists are much more effective for server security.

Overview. Our recommended design works like this. Block everything. Then permit packets from known hosts and non-routable IP addresses only, and limit known hosts to only the services they actually need. For example, a VoIP provider such as Vitelity that is providing a DID for your inbound calls doesn't need web access to your server. They need SIP and RTP access. Nothing more. The same goes for a remote user: SIP and RTP access so their SIP phone works. Nothing more. You, as Administrator, need complete access to the server but only from a specific, defined IP address. We, of course, don't want IPtables to have to inspect and filter every single packet flowing into and out of your server because that would bog things down. And we don't want users on your private LAN and remote users with dynamic IP addresses to have to wrestle with updating their phones just to stay connected. So, we've opened up all non-routable IP addresses and, once we've verified that a remote site is authorized access, then subsequent packets flowing into and out of the server for that IP address will be passed along without additional packet inspection. And once we set up the FQDN for a remote user, local dynamic DNS update clients can be used to automate the process of keeping IP addresses current. Then, every few minutes, we'll let your server check whether there's been a change in any users' dynamic IP addresses. If so, we'll simply refresh the IP addresses of all FQDNs using an IPtables restart to bring the phones back to life. To end users, The Phones Just Work™.

Finally, a word about security for VoIP in the Cloud servers. If you run a virtual machine from any hosting provider with wide open access to SIP, IAX, and web services, it's just a matter of time before your server is going to be compromised, period! If you foolishly use credit card auto-replenishment for one or more of your hosting providers then you might as well mail a blank check to the bad guys and wait for them to cash it. Today's tools will take you less than a minute to permanently lock down your server. So... JUST DO IT™.

To give you some idea of how far the Android platform has come, here are a couple screenshots of our Samsung 4G Skyrocket smartphone running three simultaneous VoIP apps all day, every day: Bria SIP extension to our PIAF2 server in Charleston, CSipSimple extension to our RentPBX VM in California, and GrooveIP session with Google Voice. Try that on your 3G iPhone 4S. :wink:

We're officially releasing this for RentPBX users running PBX in a Flash or Incredible PBX 3™. These folks have been our pioneers for a very long time, and we like to take care of them first. Properly installed, Travelin' Man 3 should work fine on any PIAF™ or Incredible PBX system. We'll make a backup of /etc/sysconfig/iptables before replacing your IPtables setup with the PIAF default setup. It assumes ALL of your traffic is flowing on eth0. If that's not the case, don't use it without major modifications! We would hasten to add that Travelin' Man 3 is licensed as GPL2 open source software. So it's available NOW to everyone to use or to embellish as they see fit. We hope every provider of VoIP services offering virtual machines in the cloud as well as those without a hardware-based firewall to protect your Asterisk server will take advantage of the opportunity to customize and deploy this code for their particular IPtables environment. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: "It's your phone bill, stupid!"

Deploying Travelin' Man 3. Here's how to deploy Travelin' Man 3 on your server. In Step #1, we run secure-iptables. This locks down virtually all IP ports and services in the original IPtables configuration for PBX in a Flash to either the IP address or the FQDN of the administrator. Be advised that this setup uses the default ports for all PIAF services, e.g. SSH, WebMin, HTTP, etc. If you use custom ports, you'll need to modify the script accordingly. If the administrator is on the move or has a dynamic IP address on his or her desktop or notebook PC/Mac that will be used to administer the cloud server, then use an FQDN, not a static IP address, when you run secure-iptables.

Step #2 is automatic and is part of secure-iptables. It opens SIP and IAX port access for "trusted providers" such as Google, Vitelity, etc. This is covered in detail below. We also open accessibility from non-routable IP addresses. You obviously can close or limit private LAN access, if desired. We included it for the benefit of those running and administering PBX in a Flash on private LANs where internal security is not a concern.

In Step #3, we'll let you set up additional access for other providers, users, and phones. You get your choice of up to 9 separate services in addition to the whole enchilada, and each account gets a name and a file to keep track of the latest IP address entry: somename.iptables. These are stored in /root. Don't delete them! New accounts can be added using either a static IP address (add-ip) or an FQDN (add-fqdn). These accounts also can be deleted whenever necessary (del-acct). You can rerun secure-iptables whenever you like, but it automatically deletes all custom user accounts. Here's the list of services from which to choose. Mix and match as desired to meet your own requirements.

0 - All Services
1 - SIP (UDP)
2 - SIP (TCP)
3 - IAX
4 - Web
5 - WebMin
6 - FTP
7 - TFTP
8 - SSH
9 - FOP

Just a word of caution. IPtables stores its setup in /etc/sysconfig/iptables, but it actually runs from an image in memory on your Linux server. As part of the load process, IPtables converts all FQDNs stored on disk to static IP addresses. This speeds up firewall processing enormously. While it's possible to add IPtables rules in memory without writing them to disk (as in the original Travelin' Man design), don't do it with Travelin' Man 3! You will lose these settings whenever IPtables is restarted by running any of the above scripts or whenever a refresh of FQDN IP addresses becomes necessary. Whatever you do, never ever run the command: service iptables save. This command is used to write the IPtables entries in memory to disk. In doing so it writes only static IP addresses to disk. This will erase (a.k.a. ruin) your Travelin' Man 3 FQDN setup and force you to start over with Step #1. Otherwise, none of your FQDN's would ever get refreshed because they've all disappeared and become static IP addresses.

IPtables also has a major shortcoming IMHO. We support FQDNs in IPtables to make it more flexible. However, a failed FQDN during an IPtables restart will cause IPtables not to load at all. We have worked around this by adding our own restart command which you should always use: iptables-restart. You've been warned.

Locking Down Your Server. While there's still time, let's spend a minute and lock down your server to the public IP address of the PC that you use to administer the system. If you don't know the public IP address of the desktop machine you use to manage your server, then click on this link using a browser on that machine, and our web site will tell you the IP address.

Now log into your virtual machine as root using SSH and issue the following commands:

cd /root
wget http://incrediblepbx.com/travelinman3.tar.gz
tar zxvf travelinman3.tar.gz
yum -y install bind-utils
./secure-iptables

When prompted for the FQDN or IP address of your Administrator PC, use the FQDN if you have one. Otherwise, type in the IP address and press the Enter key. Agree to the terms of service and license agreement by pressing Enter. When the IPtables file displays, verify that you have typed your FQDN or IP address correctly, or you will lock yourself out of your own server. Press Ctrl-X to exit the editor, and then press Enter to update IPtables and save your new configuration.

NOTE: If you are running PBX in a Flash in a cloud environment, be sure to add an entry to Travelin' Man 3 with the IP address of your cloud server. ifconfig will tell you what the IP address is. To add the entry, issue the command: /root/add-ip cloud 12.34.56.78 using your actual cloud IP address.

WARNING: If you use an FQDN for your Administrator PC and it points to a dynamic IP address, be sure to also add this same FQDN using add-fqdn. Otherwise, IP address changes will not be detected, and you may lock yourself out of your own server.

Nobody can access your server except someone seated at your PC or on your private LAN with your login credentials. You can repeat this process as often as you like because each time the script is run, it automatically restores your original IPtables configuration. Now let's grant access to your SIP providers and those using remote SIP or IAX phones.

Using DynDNS to Manage FQDNs. The key ingredient with Travelin' Man 3 is automatic management of dynamic IP addresses. When a user or even the administrator moves to a different location or IP address, we don't want to have to manually adjust anything. So what you'll first need is a DynDNS account. For $20 a year, you can set up 30 FQDNs and keep the IP addresses for these hostnames current 24-7. For $30 a year, you can manage 75 hostnames using your own domain and execute up to 600,000 queries a month. That's more than ample for almost any small business but, if you need more horsepower, DynDNS.com can handle it. What we recommend is setting up a separate FQDN for each phone on your system that uses a dynamic IP address. This can include the administrator account if desired because it works in exactly the same way. When the administrator extension drops off the radar, a refresh of IPtables will bring all FQDNs back to life including the administrator's account. Sounds simple? It is.

Preparation. Before we make further modifications to IPtables in Step #3, let's make a list of all the folks that will need access to your VoIP Server in the Cloud. For each entry, write down the name of the person, server, or phone as well as the type of entity which needs server access. Then provide either the static IP address or FQDN for each entry. If one or more of your IP addresses are dynamic (meaning the ISP changes them from time to time), we'll cover managing dynamic IP addresses in a minute. For now, just make up a fully-qualified domain name (FQDN) for each dynamic IP address using one of the available DynDNS domains. For static IP addresses, use the FQDN or the IP address. HINT: FQDNs make it easy to remember which entry goes with which provider.

Make a list of your providers NOT in this list: Vitelity (outbound1.vitelity.net and inbound1.vitelity.net), Google Voice (talk.google.com), VoIP.ms (city.voip.ms), DIDforsale (209.216.2.211), CallCentric (callcentric.com), and also VoIPStreet.com (chi-out.voipstreet.com plus chi-in.voipstreet.com), Les.net (did.voip.les.net), Future-Nine, AxVoice (magnum.axvoice.com), SIP2SIP (proxy.sipthor.net), VoIPMyWay (sip.voipwelcome.com), Obivoice/Vestalink (sms.intelafone.com), Teliax, and IPkall. The providers listed above are already enabled in the secure-iptables setup script. We call them Trusted Providers only because we trust them and have personally used all of them. We consider them reliable folks with whom to do business. It doesn't mean others aren't. It simply means these are ones we have tested with good results over the years. The only providers you'll need to add are ones we haven't provided. Also be sure to check whether the FQDNs of the providers above cover the server for your account. If not, you'll need to manually add those FQDNs as well. Keep in mind that trusted providers will have full SIP and IAX access to your server so stick with tried-and-true providers for your own safety. The PBX in a Flash Forum and DSL Reports are good sources of information on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Finally, list with a name each phone that will be connected to an extension on your server. If you have 10 traveling salesmen, then you might want to name them all by last name and also provide FQDNs with their last names, e.g. smith.dyndns.org and jones.dyndns.org. No spaces or punctuation in names or FQDNs! We strongly recommend using FQDNs wherever you can because it means zero work for you when a provider changes an IP address. Here's the table we use:

Name
Type: Person, Provider, Server, Phone
IP Address Type: Static or Dynamic
FQDN or IP Address
Services Desired: SIP, IAX, Web, FTP, SSH, etc.

Step #3: Adding Authorized Users. Now take your list and add each account to your server while logged in as root and positioned in the /root directory. For static IP addresses, use add-ip. For dynamic IP addresses and FQDNs, run add-fqdn and plug in the FQDN for each account. When one of your accounts needs to be removed, just run del-acct from the /root folder on your server and plug in the name of the account to delete. If a user changes from a static IP address to a dynamic IP address or vice versa, just delete the user and then add them again with the new IP address or FQDN. All of the accounts are stored in /root and have names like this: name.iptables.

Step #4: Setting Up DynDNS Client Updates. There are actually two pieces in the Dynamic DNS update puzzle. At the end-user side, you need to deploy a DynDNS update client on the same subnet as the phone of your user. See the links above to download the update software you prefer. In the case of cellphones with SIP phone capability, this could be as simple as installing the DynDNS update client directly on the phone itself. Plug in your DynDNS credentials as well as the FQDN associated with the particular phone, and the rest is automatic.

Step #5: Setting Up IPtables Auto-Refresh. Finally, we need a way for your server to discover when a refresh of FQDNs becomes necessary because someone's IP address has changed. The simplest way to do this is to automatically run a simple script (ipchecker) that polls the DNS authoritative server to determine whether the dynamic IP address associated with an FQDN has changed. If so, we'll update the account.iptables file to reflect the new IP address and then restart IPtables. This will refresh all IP addresses associated with FQDNs. If all or most of your users spend time sleeping each day, you may wish to run the script only during certain (waking) hours of the day so your server has less of a load. The other consideration is how often to check. The guideline here is how long can any user live without their SIP phone being connected to your server. 10 minutes may be reasonable for some. 60 minutes may suffice for others. For us, it's 3 minutes. It's your choice. The way Travelin' Man 3 works is, whenever at least one account has an IP address change, it will trigger a restart of IPtables to do an IP address refresh for all of the FQDNs.

The top of the ipchecker script in /root looks like this:

#!/bin/bash

# Insert the account filenames to be checked below
# Remember to increment the account[#] for new entries

account[0]=larry.iptables
account[1]=curly.iptables
account[2]=moe.iptables

# ipchecker (c) Copyright 2012, Ward Mundy & Associates LLC.

You'll need to edit the script (nano -w /root/ipchecker) and modify the section in bold to reflect the actual FQDN account names you've created on your server that are associated with dynamic IP addresses only. You don't want to monitor accounts with static IP addresses or FQDNs that never get updated. When those extensions are off-line, it's not because their IP address changed, and restarting IPtables won't really help to improve the situation. Be sure to increment the account[n] array for each new account that you want to monitor and use the exact format shown in the example above. Before you enter an account in the script, display the contents of the file using cat /root/accountname.iptables. Make certain that the file includes BOTH an FQDN, then a space, and then an IP address. If not, delete the account (del-acct) and add it again using add-fqdn.

Once you've entered all of your accounts with dynamic IP addresses, save the script: Ctl-X, Y, then Enter. Run the script manually now to be sure it works as you intended: /root/ipchecker. Be advised that typos that list accounts that don't exist will cause problems. Error checking consumes processing cycles by requiring additional queries so we've left it out. That means it's solely up to you to check your account names for accuracy. And, remember, only include accounts that have dynamic IP addresses with FQDNs.

Step #6: Automating FQDN Refreshes with Cron. Finally, you'll need to add an entry to the bottom of /etc/crontab using nano. If you wanted the script to run 24 hours a day at 10 minute intervals, here's the command:

*/10 * * * * root /root/ipchecker > /dev/null

If you wanted the script to only run between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. (server time zone) at 10 minute intervals, then you'd use something like this:

*/10 8-21 * * * root /root/ipchecker > /dev/null

On our RentPBX complimentary account which we use while traveling, we actually set the interval to 3 minutes. Since the DNS lookups use dig, changes on Android phones using the DynDNS client are almost instantaneous even with automatic switching between WiFi and cellular service. Finally, be sure to type date on your server and verify which time zone your cloud server thinks it's in! Adjust the times in /etc/crontab accordingly.

Be sure to check back here periodically for updates and follow the latest happenings about Travelin' Man 3 in this thread on the PIAF Forums. Enjoy!

Originally published: Thursday, March 29, 2012   Updated: April 19, 2014

UNLESS YOU DISCONTINUE USING FQDN'S WITH IPTABLES, IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL THAT YOU MONITOR YOUR SERVER DAILY IF YOU ARE RELYING EXCLUSIVELY UPON IPTABLES AS YOUR FIREWALL PROTECTION MECHANISM AND YOU ARE USING FQDN'S AS PART OF YOUR CENTOS SECURITY METHODOLOGY!




Need help with Asterisk? Visit the NEW PBX in a Flash Forum.


whos.amung.us If you're wondering what your fellow man is reading on Nerd Vittles these days, wonder no more. Visit our new whos.amung.us statistical web site and check out what's happening. It's a terrific resource both for us and for you.


 
New Vitelity Special. Vitelity has generously offered a new discount for PBX in a Flash users. You now can get an almost half-price DID from our special Vitelity sign-up link. If you're seeking the best flexibility in choosing an area code and phone number plus the lowest entry level pricing plus high quality calls, then Vitelity is the hands-down winner. Vitelity provides Tier A DID inbound service in over 3,000 rate centers throughout the US and Canada. And, when you use our special link to sign up, the Nerd Vittles and PBX in a Flash projects get a few shekels down the road while you get an incredible signup deal as well. The going rate for Vitelity's DID service is $7.95 a month which includes up to 4,000 incoming minutes on two simultaneous channels with terminations priced at 1.45¢ per minute. Not any more! For PBX in a Flash users, here's a deal you can't (and shouldn't) refuse! Sign up now, and you can purchase a Tier A DID with unlimited incoming calls for just $3.99 a month. To check availability of local numbers and tiers of service from Vitelity, click here. Do not use this link to order your DIDs, or you won't get the special pricing! Vitelity's rate is just 1.44¢ per minute for outbound calls in the U.S. There is a $35 prepay when you sign up. This covers future usage and any balance is fully refundable if you decide to discontinue service with Vitelity.
 


Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest...

Open Source Development and the Patent Trolls

Photo courtesy of Business Insider

If you’re wondering why software development in the United States is coming to a screeching halt, look no further than software patents. Here’s the way it works. All of your favorite technology companies now have stacks of software, business method, and design patents for things as obvious as the shape of a cellphone or a tablet computer that you could have seen on Star Trek in the 1960′s. And then there’s the slide to unlock “invention” that could be found 40 years ago in almost every apartment in the United States and was shown in The Predator movie in 1987, decades before the geniuses at Apple invented it. The list is endless, of course, because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office now issues software and design patents with about the same scrutiny that a kindergarten teacher employs in deciding whether kids can have permission to go to the bathroom.

So now that you have your software patent arsenal, what do you do with it? In the case of most companies, they quietly reach cross-licensing agreements with other companies which permit others to use their patents so long as the other company reciprocates. Who gets screwed in this arrangement? Startup companies and open source developers!

And then, of course, there are the companies that have convinced themselves that they really did invent all of these things they saw in the movies or saw at Xerox PARC or Wang Labs. Just like the politicians with their unaffiliated super PACs, these companies don’t want to be tarnished by daily headlines showing them suing every Tom, Dick, and Harry that now wants to create a mouse or a new piece of software. Instead, they license or sell their patents to patent trolls, shell companies whose only reason for being is to enforce patents and extract licensing fees with no fingerprints back to the original patent holder. And, what a coincidence. They’ve all set up shop in Texas where they at least believe they have found a sympathetic judiciary to hear their cases. In short, patent trolls provide the original patent holder with deniability (think Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich) while decimating the competition, a.k.a. young companies without a patent portfolio. It also, of course, has a chilling effect on open source development. Can you guess who reaps the financial rewards from patent trolls?

In fact, the situation has gotten so extreme that patent trolls now are a serious threat to the once blossoming open source development community. Here are a couple of examples. One of the most fertile areas for the patent trolls these days is robocalling software. In a nutshell, you have a database with people’s phone numbers, and a computer is used to dial the numbers and then play a recorded message. One of the key defenses to patent claims is “prior use” which means someone else thought of it before you got your patent.

Here’s the actual history of robocalling from our first-hand experience. In the late 1970′s, I was working with a federal court in Washington, D.C., and we were developing a case management system using Wang VS minicomputers, one of the first computers that bridged the gap between the data processing and text processing worlds. This led to all sorts of creative new uses for computers, and a group of us that were application developers using these computers met regularly to compare notes. I recall specifically making several visits to the Republican National Committee in Washington. They were developing, you guessed it, a robocalling system to deliver campaign messages using a Wang VS computer. If you flip to page 1-4 in this Wang VS Data Communications Guide, you’ll find a discussion (in 1979!) of what Wang called Automatic Calling Units. These were the hardware add-ons designed specifically by Wang to let VS computers do robocalling. And the Republican National Committee was hard at work writing code to do just that. It was used extensively in the 1980 election cycle, 31 years ago! No one at the time had ever heard of software patents. And yet there are software patents granted years later for the identical and obvious methodology employed by the Republicans long before Newt. Crazy!

Another example is speech-to-text software. Typically a recorded voice message is passed to a computer, and the computer transcribes the spoken words into plain text. While the technology to translate spoken language into text would certainly warrant a patent, the obvious ideas on how to use speech-to-text technology are dubious insofar as patents are concerned. For example, some obvious uses include transcribing and delivery of voicemails via email and text messaging or Twitter, transcribing dictation, language translation, and automatically placing phone calls by looking up a spoken name in a directory. The list goes on and on. These apps are trivial to build and obvious to anyone that has used computers over the last 40 years. The only real value-add in these apps is the inclusion of speech-to-text translation which Google is giving away at no cost. Delivery of voicemails via email or SMS, for example, has been an integral part of every PBX and virtually every cordless phone system since the telecommunications industry began. If there still is a valid patent for this (and we haven’t researched it), then perhaps a different delivery mechanism such as Twitter or Google+ might be options worth considering. See this transcription of Andrew Tridgell’s talk on Patent Defenses for some ideas. The problem is that nothing apparently is obvious to the patent examiners working in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Nor has USPTO been vigilant in enforcing the requirement that those applying for a patent disclose prior art. And, remember the old adage that you can’t patent an idea? Wrong again! There are thousands of them, and the list is growing.

I know many of you are sitting back thinking you’re immune from a shakedown and believing this only applies to businesses. Got a Wi-Fi router in your home? Then think again. As recently reported by ZDnet:

Innovatio IP, a new company that exists solely to shake money down for its Wi-Fi patents, is targeting individual branches of hotel, coffee shops and restaurant chains. You, with your home Wi-Fi access point, may be next.

A new open source tool for Asterisk to take advantage of the speech-to-text engine now incorporated into Google’s Chrome browser was released this week by Lefteris Zafiris. You can read all about it and download a free copy of the code from GitHub. It works on any Asterisk-based system. So what now? Is it patent infringement to use Google’s publicly-accessible technology to build yourself an app that handles the obvious and now trivial tasks we’ve outlined above? Is it “legal” to use Google’s publicly-accessible speech-to-text engine to do things other than those that Google itself designed? Your guess is as good as mine. Unfortunately, most users aren’t lawyers and aren’t prepared to spend their life fortune litigating the legal nuances of prior use, obviousness, and whether a patent should be reexamined because it merely covered an idea.

For those that want to experiment at your own risk in this legal minefield, we’ve assembled two hours’ worth of publicly available information on the topic. It shows just how trivial it is to put these freely available components together to do literally hundreds of useful tasks. And when you have a few spare minutes, do us all a favor. Contact your Congressional representatives and urge them to put a stop to this nonsense and restore some sanity to the patent process. Little wonder that the United States has fewer and fewer students interested in pursuing a career in software development. That’s a very sad day for the U.S.A.

Originally published: Friday, January 13, 2012




Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
Or Try the New, Free PBX in a Flash Conference Bridge.


whos.amung.us If you’re wondering what your fellow man is reading on Nerd Vittles these days, wonder no more. Visit our new whos.amung.us statistical web site and check out what’s happening. It’s a terrific resource both for us and for you.


 
New Vitelity Special. Vitelity has generously offered a new discount for PBX in a Flash users. You now can get an almost half-price DID and 60 free minutes from our special Vitelity sign-up link. If you’re seeking the best flexibility in choosing an area code and phone number plus the lowest entry level pricing plus high quality calls, then Vitelity is the hands-down winner. Vitelity provides Tier A DID inbound service in over 3,000 rate centers throughout the US and Canada. And, when you use our special link to sign up, the Nerd Vittles and PBX in a Flash projects get a few shekels down the road while you get an incredible signup deal as well. The going rate for Vitelity’s DID service is $7.95 a month which includes up to 4,000 incoming minutes on two simultaneous channels with terminations priced at 1.45¢ per minute. Not any more! For PBX in a Flash users, here’s a deal you can’t (and shouldn’t) refuse! Sign up now, and you can purchase a Tier A DID with unlimited incoming calls for just $3.99 a month and you get a free hour of outbound calling to test out their call quality. To check availability of local numbers and tiers of service from Vitelity, click here. Do not use this link to order your DIDs, or you won’t get the special pricing! After the free hour of outbound calling, Vitelity’s rate is just 1.44¢ per minute for outbound calls in the U.S. There is a $35 prepay when you sign up. This covers future usage and any balance is fully refundable if you decide to discontinue service with Vitelity.
 


Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…

Picking the Best (and worst) Cellphone and Provider for 2012

We’ve delayed chiming in on favorite cellphones for the past six months because, quite frankly, we were on the fence about which way to jump. We still are. But we do have some things for you to consider now that we’ve tested and used three of the world’s best available cellphones. Along the way, we’ve also encountered more than a few roadblocks that we also want to warn you about.

Like many of you, we were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the iPhone 5. We hadn’t used an iPhone since the original was released, and this seemed like a good time to make the switch. Unfortunately, that was not to be, and we shared the disappointment of many others when the iPhone 4S was released. But read on. Our situation may not be unlike many of you. We travel about once month. It’s typically by car on the interstates. And our destinations are big cities in the U.S. such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C. But just as often our final destination is our beach house at Pawleys Island, South Carolina or our cabin in Balsam Mountain Preserve in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

We have been generally thrilled with the Virgin Mobile Android and Blackberry offerings which provide excellent value (originally $25 $35 for 300 minutes and an unlimited text and data plan with no contract) and rock-solid Sprint service when you’re in a populated area or traveling down the interstate. Unlike normal Sprint phones which roam on Verizon when you enter an area without Sprint coverage, neither Boost Mobile nor Virgin Mobile has this option. So, once you enter a little beach town or the Smoky Mountains, all bets are off. In fact, you might as well turn your cellphone off. It’s not going to work.

Our solution was to acquire an ObiHai device (a link to Amazon appears in the right column) which provides Google Voice service in your choice of area codes and free calling in the U.S. and Canada for an investment of $50. The monthly cost: $0. You can configure your Google Voice account to also ring your cellphone, your home phone and a vacation home or two simultaneously so that you never miss a call. The only thing it won’t do is ring an extension in a hotel. But that’s what cellphones are for. This worked extremely well for us, but we still missed having a functioning cellphone when we were driving. We decided to leave the family phones on these inexpensive, contract-free plans and acquire one or more of the newer cellphones for business use and testing. By the way, if you root the LG Optimus V phone, you also can add free WiFi tethering for those road trips. So long as you don’t abuse it, Sprint doesn’t seem to mind. So… what to buy?

There have been dozens of good reviews of the best new phones, and we pretty much narrowed down the field to the iPhone 4S, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket from AT&T. If you haven’t used Siri, suffice it to say that it catapults the iPhone into a league of its own. The same holds true for the camera comparison. And, with a simple patch of an unrooted iPhone 4S, the camera even supports Panoramic mode.

<rant> We’ve never actually used Verizon, and their service is especially good at our remote sites so we began our quest by ordering an iPhone 4S on release day with a phone call to Verizon. Stacy was extremely helpful in outlining the various plans and indicated that they had a special underway for new iPhone 4S activations. She indicated that the $35 activation fee would be waived. She also provided her personal number (813-410-4413) so that we could contact her for assistance once the phone arrived. We were in a bit of a crunch because we were headed out of town on the same day the phone was supposed to arrive. She assured us the phone would ship overnight and arrive via FedEx before 2 p.m. You can guess the rest of the story. Rather than FedEx, UPS actually attempted to deliver the phone at 6:30 p.m. that evening, well after we had left town. No special handling had been requested by Verizon which meant end-of-day delivery was good enough in the eyes of UPS. Four days later we picked the phone up at UPS which had refused to reschedule delivery for a specific date without payment of an additional special handling charge. By letting them attempt delivery while we were out of town for four days would have meant the phone would have been returned to Verizon.

Setup of the iPhone 4S was uneventful although a call to Verizon was necessary to activate the data service. Two days use around our home office where 3G service was nowhere to be found, and we decided to return the phone. We still were within our 14-day return window without any cancellation penalty. Let the nightmare begin. The phone was returned using a shipping label included in the box, and it arrived back at Verizon within a couple days. We had prepaid for the phone by credit card to the tune of $433.99 so the only charges due were for two days of usage on a $100 a month plan. The first bill arrived before the phone had actually been received. It showed a balance of $134.65 due within 25 days. It included an activation fee. Upon calling Verizon, we were told to disregard the bill and wait on the next one which would clear everything up and remove the activation fee. Four days later, we received the new bill for $464.81 and a notice that payment was now “Past Due” despite the previous bill which indicated that payment was due within 25 days. The entire previous balance was on the bill including the activation fee. In addition, there was a $350 early termination fee and over $39 in fees and taxes. So, yes, they got the phone back. Another call to Verizon, and this time, of course, they could find no record of previous discussions or agreed terms with their sales agent. An hour later a supervisor agreed to take my word for it and, you guessed it, another bill would fix everything. A month later, the third bill arrived with most of the charges removed including a credit for the $74 payment I had made to protect my credit. Another $38 of fees had been added. Call #5 to Verizon, and they agreed to waive the balance due. We’ll see. That was 25 days ago. Bottom line: 11 minutes of rounded up test phone calls and 5 minutes of data usage rounded up to one gigabyte. Cost: $74 so far. Verizon did refund the cost of the phone. Nice!

To suggest that the design of Verizon’s ordering and billing system borders on fraudulent is about the kindest adjective we can muster. Not only is there no paper record of your order to review, but Verizon internally knew the phone had been returned within the 14-day, no termination fee window. And yet their billing system generated a $350 early termination fee in addition to other bogus charges. It’s hard to believe that any of this was accidental given the volume of customers that Verizon handles. And what do folks without a law degree do? Our guess is that more than a few may just pay the charges fearing that their credit will be ruined if they balk. By the third bill, no mortal could decipher the charges and fees including Verizon’s own agents. And, at least to us, that appears to be by design. Our advice is simple. Steer clear of Verizon until they either clean up their act or the Federal Trade Commission does it for them. </rant>

Our next adventure was an iPhone 4S for AT&T which we ordered from our local Apple store. While AT&T has a well earned reputation that’s not far off the Verizon mark, this time around it’s been a pleasant surprise. Apple handled all of the phone setup in minutes. To obtain a credit authorization from AT&T, an agent requested much of the same information you used to provide in buying your first home. Where do you live? How long have you lived there? What was the cost of your home? Where did you live before that? For how long, etc.? We passed.

We already had an AT&T Microcell device which provides AT&T cell access through your local area network. A quick call to AT&T support, and the device was reactivated. AT&T has gotten a bit greedy since we last had service with them. Not only is the unlimited data plan a thing of the past, but, unlike Verizon, your only text messaging option is all-you-can-eat for $20 a month or pay-as-you-go for 20¢ text and 30¢ photo per message. You’re well advised to choose the $20 plan at least for the first month until you’re sure the former owner of your phone number didn’t spend all day and night texting with 100 friends. There’s now a fee to change your phone number, too.

We really can’t say enough good things about the iPhone 4S. I tell folks that it’s like comparing your favorite pair of old shoes to a shiny new pair of boots. It may not be the latest and greatest, but it’s comfortable to use and reliable. If you don’t mind holding your nose because of Apple’s Soup Nazi mentality, then the iPhone 4S is hard to beat. Antennagate appears to be a thing of the past, the screen is spectacular, the camera is awesome (click on the image above and judge for yourself), and Siri is in a league of its own. Just after acquiring the phone, my mother-in-law came to visit. And, of course, I wanted to impress her with Siri by showing how quickly I could figure out my wife’s birthday. So I held the phone up to my ear and said, “When is Mary’s birthday?” Siri promptly responded, “I found six entries for Mary. Which one did you want?” Not cool, Siri. Mental note: Be careful what you ask.

Our adventure continued with the recent release of the new Google phone, Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus. Using a Micro SIM Adapter, we were able to quickly get the Galaxy Nexus up and running on AT&T’s network. We let the phone charge overnight with a WiFi connection to get all of our Google data migrated. The following day, we unplugged the phone and began using it in much the same way as our iPhone 4S: checking emails periodically, reviewing our Twitter stream, and snapping an occasional photo which gets uploaded to Picasa automatically. To make a long story short, the phone blazed through half of its battery life in about 2-1/2 hours. You can read our complete review of the phone on Google+. Suffice it to say, we weren’t impressed. The 5 megapixel camera is 2-year-old technology, the battery cover is not what you’d expect in a $500+ phone, and the face unlocking feature qualifies as gee-whiz stuff, but we unlocked the phone by displaying our own photo from an iPhone 4S. The real dealbreaker for us was the 16GB internal storage limitation on AT&T-compatible phones coupled with the absence of a microSD expansion slot. In short, this new Google phone is anything but state-of-the-art despite the addition of the Ice Cream Sandwich OS which was not that different than existing Android builds.

We’re a big believer in the open source Android platform. So we didn’t give up. AT&T had also announced a new version of Samsung’s Galaxy S II known as Skyrocket. In the past, we’ve been hesitant to try AT&T branded phones because of our experience with the original Samsung Galaxy Tab which was crippled in about every way a provider could cripple an Android device. The most serious limitation was that AT&T locked the device so that apps could only be downloaded from the Android Market. This meant downloads from Amazon’s App Store were barred which in some cases meant higher prices for identical software.

Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, Samsung’s Galaxy S II Skyrocket includes an 8 megapixel camera which rivals the iPhone 4S. See the link above for a photo comparison. We’ve had excellent results with both the iPhone 4S and the Skyrocket. And unlike AT&T’s Galaxy Tab, the Skyrocket was not crippled except insofar as tethering without a 4GB data plan is concerned. For those that can’t live without a rooted phone, this was a 5-minute operation on the Skyrocket device. And, unlike the Galaxy Nexus, we haven’t seen the extreme battery depletion. We easily get a full day’s use out of the Skyrocket.

The only wrinkle with the Galaxy Skyrocket was that the iPhone 4S data plan didn’t work at all with the device. Unlike some other features, this isn’t one you can change yourself using AT&T’s web portal. But a quick call to AT&T will get you switched to the DataPro for Smartphone 4G LTE Plan which is similarly priced. Be sure to follow up by checking their changes on the web portal. In our case, we were switched to the Enterprise version which added an additional $20 a month to already exorbitant data plan charges. Once a Bell Sister, always a Bell Sister. But at least we expect it.

The correct plan is identical to the iPhone 4S offerings except you also get access to AT&T’s new 4G network. Even in the hybrid 4G network areas (aka HSPA+) which roughly doubles 3G performance, the speeds are quite remarkable. The other good news is that, once you’re on the 4G LTE data plan, you can swap back and forth between the Skyrocket phone and 3G service with the iPhone 4S without another phone call since the 4G LTE plan is downward compatible with the 3G network supported by the iPhone 4S. So we’re happy campers at the moment. Both phones work for calling, data, and texting. Switching from one to the other is as easy as swapping the SIM card between the devices. When we’re in a real 4G metropolitan area (which AT&T expanded to 11 new markets today), the Skyrocket device will be our phone of choice. Its speed, performance, huge screen, and gorgeous display are second to none. Coupled with the $5 Groove IP app, you’ll have a perfect Google Voice experience using WiFi with or without a SIM card. In the meantime, we’re still enjoying our old pair of shoes.

Originally published: Thursday, January 5, 2012




Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
Or Try the New, Free PBX in a Flash Conference Bridge.


whos.amung.us If you’re wondering what your fellow man is reading on Nerd Vittles these days, wonder no more. Visit our new whos.amung.us statistical web site and check out what’s happening. It’s a terrific resource both for us and for you.


 
New Vitelity Special. Vitelity has generously offered a new discount for PBX in a Flash users. You now can get an almost half-price DID and 60 free minutes from our special Vitelity sign-up link. If you’re seeking the best flexibility in choosing an area code and phone number plus the lowest entry level pricing plus high quality calls, then Vitelity is the hands-down winner. Vitelity provides Tier A DID inbound service in over 3,000 rate centers throughout the US and Canada. And, when you use our special link to sign up, the Nerd Vittles and PBX in a Flash projects get a few shekels down the road while you get an incredible signup deal as well. The going rate for Vitelity’s DID service is $7.95 a month which includes up to 4,000 incoming minutes on two simultaneous channels with terminations priced at 1.45¢ per minute. Not any more! For PBX in a Flash users, here’s a deal you can’t (and shouldn’t) refuse! Sign up now, and you can purchase a Tier A DID with unlimited incoming calls for just $3.99 a month and you get a free hour of outbound calling to test out their call quality. To check availability of local numbers and tiers of service from Vitelity, click here. Do not use this link to order your DIDs, or you won’t get the special pricing! After the free hour of outbound calling, Vitelity’s rate is just 1.44¢ per minute for outbound calls in the U.S. There is a $35 prepay when you sign up. This covers future usage and any balance is fully refundable if you decide to discontinue service with Vitelity.
 


Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…

The Googlifier: WordPress Widget Alternative for Google+

Nerd Vittles has been not only a fan but also a user of WordPress for the better part of this century. So it only made sense to contribute a little something back once the opportunity presented itself. Now that Google Plus has released the first iteration of an API, it became fairly easy to extract all of your Google+ content and import it into any current WordPress blog. Rather than offering a plugin or widget that requires constant maintenance, today we’re providing an open source toolkit that lets you automatically and regularly grab your public Google+ content and add it to your new or existing WordPress 3.2.1 blog. Here’s a screenshot of our sample blog using the WordPress twentyten template. We set this up in less than an hour on a hosted platform using cPanel with Fantastico, an application installer which is available on thousands of hosted platforms around the world. Our favorite for new bloggers is Lunarpages for as little as $4.95 a month.

The hidden beauty of this project is that others can take our open source code and transform the same Google+ content into other templates as well. For example, it would be pretty simple to turn your Google Plus feed into something that looked more like the new Facebook Timeline Layout:

Or you might prefer something more like Flipboard or Google’s new secret project that transforms Twitter content into a customized social news magazine:

But, for today, we want to concentrate on WordPress and show you how easy it is to assimilate your Google+ content into a new or existing blog. Down the road, it would be pretty easy to use The Googlifier to grab the public feeds of your Favorite Google+ Circle and assimilate all of that content into a Best of Google+ Blog. But let’s save that project for another day.

Prerequisites. There are some basic components of both Google+ and WordPress that you’ll need to have in place before using The Googlifier. On the Google front, for openers you’ll obviously need a Google+ account. You no longer need an invitation. Just sign up here. You’ll also need your Google+ account ID which is the long string of numbers displayed in the web link when you access your Google+ Profile:

Last, but not least, you’ll need a free Google+ API key. This lets you grab a JSON feed of your Google+ public posts up to 1,000 times per day. You do NOT need an OAuth Token to download your public Google+ content!

On the WordPress side, The Googlifier is expecting to find a working WordPress 3.2.1 blog. You also need command-line access to run The Googlifier scripts. This can also be done using cPanel. Be advised that we have not tested this application with prior releases of WordPress! We would caution you to be very careful doing so if you have a working live blog. As frequent readers of Nerd Vittles already know, we provide the same advice on introducing new software as we do for those contemplating a new marine aquarium. Always have two platforms: one for display and one to test whether your new fish have cooties. If you choose the all-in-one approach, sooner or later you’ll probably end up with a bunch of dead fish. You’ve been warned. :wink:

The good news is that, once you have obtained your Google+ credentials and have the proper WordPress platform in place, using The Googlifier requires zero technical skills. Set a few defaults once, run a couple scripts at regular intervals, and you’re done. If you’d like to add Categories to each of your blog posts, that is easily accomplished after you import your Google+ content by simply editing your posts while logged into WordPress with your admin credentials.

Getting Started. Now we’re ready to download the software. If you have SSH access to your WordPress blog, log in and change directories to the default directory for your blog. Then issue the following commands:

wget http://mundy.org/googleplus/googlifier.zip
unzip googlifier.zip
rm googlifier.zip

Next, you need to insert your Google+ credentials in wm-getfeed.sh. Edit the file using the command: nano -w wm-getfeed.sh. Near the top of the script, you’ll see the following two lines:

acctid=”12345″
apikey=”67890″

Replace 12345 with your Google+ Account ID. Replace 67890 with your Google+ API Key. Be careful to preserve the quotes on each side of the two entries. Once you’re finished, save the file: Ctrl-X, Y, and Enter.

Now make sure your credentials work by running the app and agreeing to the license: ./wm-getfeed.sh. If you see ERROR 400: Bad Request, then there’s an error in your credentials.

Next, you need to edit wm-readfeed.php using the same extended nano syntax shown above. On line #15, insert your blog URL in place of ours. Be sure to preserve the trailing /. Save the file and then run the script to populate your blog with your latest Google+ public postings: ./wm-readfeed.php.

Finally, access your blog using a web browser and make certain the content looks right. If the images are too large, you can adjust them in the settings section at the top of wm-readfeed.php. Make certain to preserve the correct proportions between the width and height entries. As installed, your Google+ posts will only be imported once into WordPress. If you’d prefer to overwrite your entries each time you run the PHP script, then set the variable $overwriteposts to true. Be aware that this may cause issues with search engines because the links to your posts will change each time you rerun the PHP script and delete the previously imported posts.

We also recommend you install the free (for non-business use) FancyZoom app for WordPress. This lets users click on images in your blog to enlarge them automatically. You can try it out here or in our Demo Google+ Blog. If you decide not to use FancyZoom, then you may wish to set $click2photoalbum to true. This will allow users to access the Google+ photo album associated with certain posts by clicking on the displayed image.

Automating The Googlifier Imports. Once you’re satisfied that the imports are working correctly, it’s simple to automate the process so that it runs regularly to gobble up your Google+ content. For those using cPanel, you’ll find a Cron Jobs option on the main screen. What we want to do is schedule the wm-getfeed.sh script to run every hour at one minute after the hour. And then schedule the wm-readfeed.php script to run every hour at three minutes after the hour. That way you’ll always have the latest content on your blog. Here’s the way a sample cron entry should look. Just substitute your account name on your cPanel host for ward, and you’re all set. Unless you want to be bombarded hourly with email confirmations, add > /dev/null to the end of the commands (not shown in the sample below).

And One More Thing… We saved the best for last. One of the drawbacks of Google+ has been the lack of support for in-line images such as you see in this blog posting. With The Googlifier, it’s now a thing of the past. You can embed as many images as you like in any posting at any place you like except in the first line of the posting. Just enclose image links in {curly braces} within your Google+ posting, and The Googlifier will handle the rest. Here’s a quick sample:

A Word About Open Source Development. The real beauty of open source code is that you have an opportunity to improve what’s been provided. We hope you not only will do so but also will share your improvements with the rest of us. Just post a comment below using your real email address which won’t be published. We will contact you to obtain your code which we’ll be happy to host on Nerd Vittles for everyone to enjoy.

A Word About Versions. This is version 1.0 software so don’t assume it’s finished or error-free. Check this post regularly to download new updates as they are finished. The comments below or update notices appearing just below here will attempt to explain what has been added, changed, or improved. Enjoy!

Originally published: Monday, October 24, 2011




Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
Or Try the New, Free PBX in a Flash Conference Bridge.


whos.amung.us If you’re wondering what your fellow man is reading on Nerd Vittles these days, wonder no more. Visit our new whos.amung.us statistical web site and check out what’s happening. It’s a terrific resource both for us and for you.


 
New Vitelity Special. Vitelity has generously offered a new discount for PBX in a Flash users. You now can get an almost half-price DID and 60 free minutes from our special Vitelity sign-up link. If you’re seeking the best flexibility in choosing an area code and phone number plus the lowest entry level pricing plus high quality calls, then Vitelity is the hands-down winner. Vitelity provides Tier A DID inbound service in over 3,000 rate centers throughout the US and Canada. And, when you use our special link to sign up, the Nerd Vittles and PBX in a Flash projects get a few shekels down the road while you get an incredible signup deal as well. The going rate for Vitelity’s DID service is $7.95 a month which includes up to 4,000 incoming minutes on two simultaneous channels with terminations priced at 1.45¢ per minute. Not any more! For PBX in a Flash users, here’s a deal you can’t (and shouldn’t) refuse! Sign up now, and you can purchase a Tier A DID with unlimited incoming calls for just $3.99 a month and you get a free hour of outbound calling to test out their call quality. To check availability of local numbers and tiers of service from Vitelity, click here. Do not use this link to order your DIDs, or you won’t get the special pricing! After the free hour of outbound calling, Vitelity’s rate is just 1.44¢ per minute for outbound calls in the U.S. There is a $35 prepay when you sign up. This covers future usage and any balance is fully refundable if you decide to discontinue service with Vitelity.
 


Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…

Android 3 Deal of the Year: Acer Tab for Under $300

We’ve never done back-to-back reviews of similar devices, but this week’s Target ad changes all of that. As you might expect, Acer has covered all of the bases with their entry into the dual-core Android 3 tablet sweepstakes. You may recall that we weren’t huge fans of the Motorola Xoom which promised a lot and delivered a boatload of vaporware. The Acer Iconia Tab A500 is not the Xoom. You not only get a microSD slot and Flash that actually work, but Acer has thrown in an HDMI port that can output 1080p video as well as a USB port that lets you connect your favorite USB devices including external hard disks. It performs this magic with an 8-10 hour battery life. And this week (only at Target) you can pick up this WiFi-only device for half the cost of the Motorola Xoom. In fact, after the gift card, it’s only a dollar more than the single-core Vizio Tablet that we reviewed last week.

Update: See the comments for equivalent deals just announced at NewEgg and CompUSA.

It’s difficult to describe the feel of the Acer Tab. Suffice it to say, it’s dimensions coupled with its sleek and sculpted design put it in the league with the iPad2 unlike the Xoom which felt chunky and clunky despite being an ounce lighter than the Acer.

As we mentioned last week, we don’t dive too deeply into the technical weeds in our reviews. If you want the technical assessment, check out this PC World review. What we prefer to evaluate is real-world usage of these devices. The Acer Tab has stunning performance. In addition to reading email and browsing the web, here’s the suite of applications which we think matter to most folks. We want to watch videos from YouTube and NetFlix. We want to stream music from Google Music and Spotify and read our Kindle books. We like to use Skype. And, yes, we also like Flash video support which works perfectly on the Acer tablet.

In addition to running Android 3, the Acer Tab boasts impressive hardware specs running a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 250 dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of ROM. Add another 32GB easily with the microSD slot. The 10.1-inch tablet has a 1280-by-800 pixel display with a 16:10 aspect ratio that’s perfect for HD video content. We always prefer testing devices with real-world video content that we’ve shot so we can compare it to performance on other devices. Our Pawleys Island Parade video didn’t disappoint. It’s performance and color were as good or better on the Acer Tab than on Apple’s top-of-the-line 27″ iMac featuring a quad-core 2.93 GHz Core i7 processor with 8GB of RAM plus L2 and L3 cache. The same can be said with playback of complex Flash video. Netflix unfortunately is still a few weeks off although rooted Acer devices reportedly run it just fine.

On the music front, it doesn’t get much better than the Acer Tab. With Google Music or Spotify, the music world is your oyster. And the silver lining is that the Acer Tab is the one and only device that includes Dolby Mobile audio. Once you adjust the equalizer to match your taste in music, you’ll have sound quality to match that 20-pound boombox gathering dust in your basement.

In the communications department, Skype performed well although video calls are not yet supported. That’s unfortunate given the impressive specs on the Acer Tab’s two cameras. The Iconia Tab has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera with flash in addition to a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video conferencing. Finally, making and receiving free phone calls using either an Asterisk® server with CSipSimple or Google Voice using a $50 Obihai device and the free ObiON client for Android both worked great.

There’s only one word you’ll need to remember to take advantage of this Target deal: H-U-R-R-Y! This is a one-week only special, and Target offers no rainschecks. So call around until you find one. You won’t be sorry. And, as usual, Target offers a 90-day, no questions asked return policy which is second to none.

Google+ Invites Still Available. Need a Google+ invite? Drop us a note and include the word “Google+” and we’ll get one off to you. Come join the fun!

Our Favorite Android Apps. We’ve listed a few of our favorite apps below for those just getting started with Android. Enjoy!


Originally published: Tuesday, August 16, 2011




Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
Or Try the New, Free PBX in a Flash Conference Bridge.


whos.amung.us If you’re wondering what your fellow man is reading on Nerd Vittles these days, wonder no more. Visit our new whos.amung.us statistical web site and check out what’s happening. It’s a terrific resource both for us and for you.


 
New Vitelity Special. Vitelity has generously offered a new discount for PBX in a Flash users. You now can get an almost half-price DID and 60 free minutes from our special Vitelity sign-up link. If you’re seeking the best flexibility in choosing an area code and phone number plus the lowest entry level pricing plus high quality calls, then Vitelity is the hands-down winner. Vitelity provides Tier A DID inbound service in over 3,000 rate centers throughout the US and Canada. And, when you use our special link to sign up, the Nerd Vittles and PBX in a Flash projects get a few shekels down the road while you get an incredible signup deal as well. The going rate for Vitelity’s DID service is $7.95 a month which includes up to 4,000 incoming minutes on two simultaneous channels with terminations priced at 1.45¢ per minute. Not any more! For PBX in a Flash users, here’s a deal you can’t (and shouldn’t) refuse! Sign up now, and you can purchase a Tier A DID with unlimited incoming calls for just $3.99 a month and you get a free hour of outbound calling to test out their call quality. To check availability of local numbers and tiers of service from Vitelity, click here. Do not use this link to order your DIDs, or you won’t get the special pricing! After the free hour of outbound calling, Vitelity’s rate is just 1.44¢ per minute for outbound calls in the U.S. There is a $35 prepay when you sign up. This covers future usage and any balance is fully refundable if you decide to discontinue service with Vitelity.
 


Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…

How Good Can a $298 Android Tablet Be?

Pretty damn good in the case of the new 8″ Vizio Tablet. While it’s not going to take any speed awards when compared with the new Galaxy Tab 10.1, it does have a 1GHz processor with 512MB of RAM which delivers respectable performance with incredible battery life that rivals any iPad. Storage capacity is limited to 2GB, but you can add a 32GB microSD and meet any computing demands you may have. Currently the device is WiFi only.

As you might expect, Vizio knows a thing or two about televisions, and there’s a silver lining with the Vizio Tablet. Not only is an IR blaster included in the hardware, but you also get a giant TV remote that controls any combination of TVs, cable and satellite boxes, DVD and BluRay devices, and about 95% of the other video and audio components you will find on the planet. And it works as well or better than any of the pricey, high-end touchscreen (with a little screen) TV remotes that would easily put you in the Poor House. Say goodnight, Logitech. There’s also a front-facing 640×480 camera which easily suffices for video conferencing. No current video conferencing apps work, by the way, but it’s only been on the street for a week. The best news of all, you can pick one up at Costco or WalMart if you want one today. Or order it from Amazon if you prefer tax-free.

We don’t dive too deeply into the technical weeds in our reviews. If you want the technical assessment, check out this SlashGear review. What we prefer to evaluate is real-world usage of these devices. The Vizio Tablet passes with flying colors. In addition to reading email and browsing the web, here’s the suite of applications which we think matter to most folks. We want to watch videos from YouTube and NetFlix. We want to stream music from Google Music and Spotify and read our Kindle books. We like to use Skype. Sorry, Apple, we also like Flash video support which works perfectly on the Vizio Tablet even though it’s currently running Gingerbread.1

Last, but not least, being a phone nerd, we obviously want to make and receive free phone calls using either an Asterisk® server with CSipSimple or Google Voice using a $50 Obihai device and the free ObiON client for Android. Both work great!

Of course, the usual Android favorites including Google+ with the exception of (the currently non-functioning) Huddle for video conferencing with up to 10 participants, Maps, Navigation, and Google Talk all work flawlessly. Gallery is perfectly synched with your Picasa photo collection which now can store unlimited photos at no cost through Google Plus. If you want to actually take professional photographs and make feature films, this isn’t the device for you. With the exception of Skype which is not yet available for this device (which was just released), everything else we’ve mentioned works great especially if you’re living on a budget. And, with the addition of Huddle in Google+, the absence of Skype support really doesn’t much matter any more. If you happen to need a Google+ invite, here’s a link compliments of Nerd Vittles. Finally, and pardon us for repeating, if you’re sick of wrestling with a half dozen remotes to watch television, this device is worth its weight in gold. You’ll be asking yourself why no one but Vizio was smart enough to think of it.

Vizio also had a better idea when it came to the Android user interface. As you can see in the photo above, there’s a top section where you can install your Favorite Apps. Immediately below that is your entire Applications collection. At the very bottom, there are five buttons which you can assign to your Must-Have Apps such as email, your web browser, the Google Market, Settings, and whatever else you happen to like.

Another nice touch that hasn’t been mentioned in many of the reviews is that Vizio has added a new keyboard option. If you remember the ergonomic keyboards that had the keys divided into two sections, Vizio has done much the same thing on the touchscreen which greatly improves typing for those that actually learned how. This keyboard, of course, can be toggled on and off depending upon your personal taste.

In conclusion, we think Vizio has hit a home run with this device. The price point, the feature set, the form factor, and the incredible battery life are just about perfect. We’ve listed a few of our favorite Android apps below to get you started. Enjoy!


Originally published: Wednesday, August 10, 2011




Need help with Asterisk? Visit the PBX in a Flash Forum.
Or Try the New, Free PBX in a Flash Conference Bridge.


whos.amung.us If you’re wondering what your fellow man is reading on Nerd Vittles these days, wonder no more. Visit our new whos.amung.us statistical web site and check out what’s happening. It’s a terrific resource both for us and for you.


 
New Vitelity Special. Vitelity has generously offered a new discount for PBX in a Flash users. You now can get an almost half-price DID and 60 free minutes from our special Vitelity sign-up link. If you’re seeking the best flexibility in choosing an area code and phone number plus the lowest entry level pricing plus high quality calls, then Vitelity is the hands-down winner. Vitelity provides Tier A DID inbound service in over 3,000 rate centers throughout the US and Canada. And, when you use our special link to sign up, the Nerd Vittles and PBX in a Flash projects get a few shekels down the road while you get an incredible signup deal as well. The going rate for Vitelity’s DID service is $7.95 a month which includes up to 4,000 incoming minutes on two simultaneous channels with terminations priced at 1.45¢ per minute. Not any more! For PBX in a Flash users, here’s a deal you can’t (and shouldn’t) refuse! Sign up now, and you can purchase a Tier A DID with unlimited incoming calls for just $3.99 a month and you get a free hour of outbound calling to test out their call quality. To check availability of local numbers and tiers of service from Vitelity, click here. Do not use this link to order your DIDs, or you won’t get the special pricing! After the free hour of outbound calling, Vitelity’s rate is just 1.44¢ per minute for outbound calls in the U.S. There is a $35 prepay when you sign up. This covers future usage and any balance is fully refundable if you decide to discontinue service with Vitelity.
 


Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…

  1. Honeycomb has been promised for down the road. []

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