How sending email to SMS led me to a world of event-driven programming

A couple of nights ago, I was messing around with SMS alerting after checking out some websites to let me know the best times to see the Northern Lights in southern Britain. Lancaster University’s AuroraWatch UK site, has an alerting system including advice on sending emails to a phone via SMS.  The exact steps are carrier-specific, however O2, who operate the network I use (Giffgaff), works with MMail (send a text consisting of the word on to 212 and a confirmation from 21203 will tell you your email address, which should be +447xxxxxxxxx@mmail.co.uk – turn it off again with an off text to 212).  Even so, it is a risky service to leave active as each text message sent or received costs the recipient (it’s supposed to be 10p, but for me it seemed to be £0.20), so it’s possible for a spammer to run up a hefty phone bill for you… on that basis, MMail doesn’t sound so attractive.

There are a variety of SMS services available from SMS2Email but a little bit more digging around (on the Giffgaff forums), turned up reference to If This Then That (Ifttt) – a website that someone had mentioned to me recently but which I hadn’t looked at yet.

My verdict? Wow! Event-driven programming is cool.

Register at the site and build tasks that match the “if this, then that” construct, based on:

  • Triggers – the this part.
  • Actions – the that part.
  • Channels – the “things” that triggers and actions take input from or output to .

Tasks poll for input every 15 minutes but they can be turned on/off and you can also create recipes for sharing tasks, so for example, I’ve created a task/recipe that polls the AuroraWatch UK Twitter RSS and sends an SMS message when there is a red alert (i.e. a chance of spotting the Northern Lights anywhere in the UK). I’m sure there are loads more things that can be done with Ifttt as there stacks of channels to build from – in fact, wading through the recipes that people have shared brings up some pretty cool ideas.

Ifttt is definitely worthy of further investigation…

Giffgaff gotcha

A few months ago, I wrote about Giffgaff – and I’m still very happy with paying less for a mobile service on the O2 network than I would from O2 (and earning credit for referrals, answering questions, etc. in the process).  Unfortunately I fell foul of a little complexity in the service this week and I think it’s worth mentioning.

Giffgaff account detailsAfter getting cut off a call mid flow, I logged into the Giffgaff website, under My giffgaff, looked for the My account panel, and saw that my credit had reduced from around £5 to just 16p.  The reason was that my “Goodybag” (a bundle of calls, text and data) had expired and that the “Auto Top-up” only applies to my “credit” balance (a separate pay as you go balance for chargable services that are not included in the Goodybag, like 0845 numbers).

It is possible to buy your next Goodybag to pick up where an expired one has left off (as you can see, I’ve done this now) – but that’s not the same as Auto Top-up.  (Quite why my Auto Top-up didn’t trigger is anyone’s guess but I’m kind of happy it didn’t as I would have carried on chatting and surfing, thinking I was using my included minutes/megabytes, but actually spending money…)

Get a free giffgaff SimAs I recommended Giffgaff to readers of this blog (indeed, I still do recommend them), I thought I should highlight this potential source of confusion, in case anyone else trips up like I did!

[Update 18 June 2012: Giffgaff have announced that they will launch recurring Goodybag topups on 20 June 2012)

Giffgaff – why did no-one tell me about this before?

Get a free giffgaff SIMOver the Christmas holidays, I completed my new year rationalisation of mobile contracts by switching my mobile phone from O2 (£16.50 for 200 minutes and a 500MB data bolt on, monthly rolling contract) to Giffgaff (£10 for 250 minutes and “unlimited” data). Having done so, I really don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner (apart from the fact I didn’t know about it!) – especially as Giffgaff not only runs on O2’s network but is actually owned by Telefonica/O2! Indeed, O2’s own careers website describes Giffgaff like this:

“Giff-what? Yes, we know it’s a funny name. Giffgaff is a brand new mobile network that doesn’t play by mainstream rules.

Instead, the company’s customers help run the company in return for cash rewards. Hence the term ‘giffgaff’, which means ‘mutual giving’, as any ancient Scot will tell you.

Customers can earn rewards for helping other customers with queries, designing marketing materials or by recruiting new members.

The business runs a tight ship – it has no call centres, high street shops and doesn’t splash out on expensive, glossy ad campaigns.

The result of this is that giffgaff keeps its costs low and and is able to pass the savings on to all its customers.

Although giffgaff is owned by O2 it is run as a separate company by a small group of passionate, full-time employees based in Beaconsfield just 8 miles north of Slough.”

This sounded good – and with a referral code that earned both me and the referrer a £5 credit I signed up. If you’re interested in signing up then we can both earn a fiver too!

So, what’s the catch? Surely there has to be one? The only difference that I can see is the support framework if things don’t work as they should. There is community support and you can “ask an agent” from the Giffgaff website but there is no call centre (which, depending on your view of call centres, may be A Good Thing).

Once I received my SIM, I activated it, including adding a £10 Goodybag to my account and then started to plan for transferring my number. I’ve had the same mobile number for a long time (10 years or more) and I didn’t want to lose it but there was clear guidance on the Giffgaff website setting out  the steps I needed to take to transfer my number and setting my expectations for the day of transfer (although I did panic a bit when the number still  hadn’t ported at the end of business hours – it finally became live in the early evening). I also needed to cut down the Giffgaff SIM to fit my phone (most phones use the standard SIM but my Nokia Lumia 800 uses a micro SIM) – there’s a template for this but I bought a SIM cutter for a few pounds on the Internet.

With my voice services transferred I needed to set up the APN for mobile data access on my smartphone, set up mobile messaging, and set up voicemail. All of this was covered in a handy Giffgaffer’s guide to Windows Phone 7(.5) – I’ve sure there are similar guides for iOS, Android, etc. too.

All in all, I’m really pleased with my switch to Giffgaff. If you’re not happy messing around with SIMs and entering a few settings in your phone, it may not be for you, but for anyone who is out of contract with their current mobile provider, is happy supporting their own technology, and who can get an O2 signal (the O2 status checker provides coverage details for a given postcode) then Giffgaff might be worth a try.

Making an “ordinary” O2 3G data SIM work in an iPad without a tariff change

The history of my various mobile telcommuncations contracts is a long one, so I’ll spare readers the details but after my recent customer service debacle with Three, I’ve cut them loose (they tried to offer me an iPad 2 for “free” to stay with them… the sort of “free” that involves a 2 year contract… no thanks…).

I planned to use an O2 SIM that was already activated for mobile data in my iPad so I cut it down to micro SIM size, using a cutter that I bought on the ‘net for a few pounds. After booting the iPad with the new SIM, it found the O2 network but told me that I didn’t have a data contract and gave me a number to call O2, and a reference to quote (the identifier for my SIM).

O2 told me that it would require a tariff change and that iPad data is different to mobile broadband. I’m sure they meant that it’s billed differently, rather than that it’s different in any other way (special Apple “iTCP/IP” or “iHTTPS”?) but Tim Biller (@Timbo_Baggins) suggested I look at the Access Point Name (APN) settings.

It took a while to find the right ones – googling for APN O2 iPad told me to change from ibrowse.o2.co.uk (username/password: browse/password) to idata.o2.co.uk (username/password: vertigo/password) but they didn’t work. I needed to think of this the other way around: my SIM works in a 3G dongle so I googled APN O2 dongle and found an extensive list of APNs for UK mobile network providers. Changing the APN in my iPad to mobile.o2.co.uk (username/password: web/web) did the trick, as tested by browsing the ‘net (albeit only GPRS where I live) with Wi-Fi turned off.

The advantage of this approach is that the same SIM now works in my iPad or in my dongle (using an adapter) allowing 3G data access from either device, on the same bill, but only one at a time (that’s fine).

Next step is to switch my phone over from O2 (£16.50 a month including 500MB data) to Giffgaff (£10 a month with unlimited data, same network…). I already have the SIM, just waiting to get Christmas out of the way before I try to transfer my phone number!

[Update 16 January 2012: Some time over the last few days, this stopped working for me. The SIM is still active and works in my 3G dongle, but I guess O2 have made some changes in the network that stop this simple APN change from working with an iPad – madness, as my iPad must place less load on the network than a dongle with a Windows PC, albeit more than a smartphone would…]

A workaround for iPad users/Three UK subscribers to access their mobile broadband bills on another device

Three UK (3) has just been added to my list of mobile operators who haven’t got a clue about customer service.

For the last few months I’ve been using Three’s mobile broadband service on my iPad. The in-store service when I joined the network was pretty lousy but today that got a whole lot worse. I needed to store a copy of my bills and found that the My 3 portal was only available to me over Three’s 3G network from my iPad. Access from a PC, or over Wi-Fi needed a password. And resetting that password needed the ability to receive SMS, a capability that my iPad does not have…

So I called Three. Actually, I rang several numbers for Three, trying to avoid paying for the call (I can’t use their free number because I don’t have a phone on their network…) and I spoke to someone who understood the issue but couldn’t help because they were in the mobile dongle department. He transferred me to someone in the iPad team (approx. 10 minute wait…) who confirmed I could only access my bills on my iPad and when I asked how I could download them he suggested either dragging and dropping them to my email (what?!). At this point, I think he was well off his script and just making things up but he asked me if I have an iPhone 4S. I don’t, so he suggested going into store, putting my SIM into the store’s iPhone 4S, and getting the password sent by SMS to it…

[Thinking about the situation as I write this post, I don’t have an iPhone 4S but I do  have another phone that can take a micro SIM… but Three asked if I had an iPhone 4S]

My issues here are: having to pay to speak to a customer service agent and being kept on hold for a while; getting poor advice from the agent (unless Three can tell me how to drag and drop my bill from their portal to my email, on an iPad); and not getting an answer to my problem. Visiting a store is simply not worth the effort (20-odd mile drive, pay for parking, an hour of my time) – but could well lose Three a customer.

I did find a workaround though, for anyone who has Dropbox installed on their iPad…

  1. Disconnect from any Wi-Fi networks and open the My 3 portal on the iPad (My 3 loads in Safari without asking for credentials if you are connected to the Three network with a 3G connection).
  2. Navigate to Recent Bills and press/hold the PDF icon to open a bill.
  3. Once loaded, open the PDF in Dropbox – it will be saved as a file called viewInvoice.nocache, which is a PDF file, but without the correct file extension.
  4. Rename viewInvoice.nocache to add a .PDF file extension and open it as normal on any device you like.

Interestingly, O2 (whose incompetence caused me to switch my mobile broadband to Three in the first place, but who did later take steps to address the issue) still send me an email every month to say that my mobile broadband payment has failed… that suggests my account is still live… maybe with 5GB of data still loaded… perhaps I should search for that micro SIM and try it again…

It’s worth hunting around for updated software for mobile data devices

Back in 2007, I wrote about the fun and games I had getting a Vodafone PC card working with Windows Vista and I revisited the topic in 2009 with Mac OS X. Thankfully, things have moved on since then but, a few weeks ago, I was issued with a replacement modem for mobile data, as part of a change of mobile operator. The new device is an O2 Business USB Modem 889 and the fact that it’s a USB device rather than a PC card is great (it means it works with more of my computers) but the software it ships with is awful, presenting a Windows XP-like skin, even on my Windows 7 system!

Since my computer was rebuilt to corporate standards a few weeks ago, I’ve been making a concerted effort to avoid installing any unnecessary components (although somebody has put an in house “display manager” on the build, despite there being a perfectly good one that’s just a Windows+P keypress away, and HP’s printer driver for my company-supplied OfficeJet 6310 at home installed a pile of crapware). My intention was to simply install drivers for my USB modem, then follow a colleague’s advice to create a dial-up connection with the HSPA modem as follows:

  • Modem initialisation to +cgdcont=1,"IP","mobile.o2.co.uk"
  • Dial-up number to *99#
  • Username and password for the dial-up connection set to o2web and password

The problem with this is that my colleague was setting his environment up inside a virtual machine, using virtual network drivers to map to the underlying host’s hardware.  I’m running directly on the hardware (non-virtualised) and I couldn’t find the drivers for my device.

Using the USB ID Repository, I was able to check that my device was a Sierra Wireless (1199) device (actually, the label on the device would have helped there too) and I was also able to see from the markings on the device that it is a Compass 889.  After checking out the Sierra Wireless website, I found updated software for my modem, even a version for my carrier (O2) but nothing that seemed to offer naked drivers without any additional applications.  As it happens, the latest version of the Sierra Wireless Aircard Watcher installed without any issues and it seems much better than the software that O2 originally shipped with the device – although it’s interesting to note that this device is now officially end of life, despite mine only having been shipped in recent weeks.

I guess the main point of this post is to say “hunt around” – you may find that there is updated software for your device, from either the OEM or the carrier, that provides a better experience than the version shipped out-of-the-box.

[Update: I had cause to download the Sierra Wireless Aircard Watcher again tonight and it seems the download location has changed in the last couple of years]