What sets the iPod Touch apart is the way it can make phone calls.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Telephone calling without a phone? Apple makes it easy

Sept. 26, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   When you want to call your friend Harry, you punch in his telephone number. That's the way it's got to be. Right?
   Not so right. Telephone numbers are about to go away. Not all at once. But they've had their time in the sun.
   Who says so?
   No, I haven't been kidnapped by a bunch of Apple "fanboys" and subjected to reality-distortion therapy. And I'm not on the payroll of Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and chief visionary.
   But look what happened to the way we listen to music when Apple introduced the iPod just nine years ago. When the iPod came out, all of us were listening to our music collection on tape cassettes or CDs. Now, thanks to the iPod's handy way of turning music into tiny computer-like files, cassettes are has-beens and CDs might as well be Compact Dinosaurs.
   Apple did that by thinking ahead of the curve. And it's doing it again.
   A few weeks ago, Apple announced the latest model of the iPod Touch. There are other new iPods -- the postage-stamp-size Shuffle and the hide-in-your-palm Nano --but the new iPod Touch is the one that's going to launch a revolution in an unlikely category.
   Like the previous model, it plays music and shows videos. But that's not special any more. What sets the Touch apart is the way it can make phone calls.
   You heard that right. The iPod Touch isn't a phone, yet it can make phone calls. It doesn't require a monthly contract and you don't have to sign up with one of those Take-Your-Money-and-Drop-Your-Calls cellular providers.
   As its name indicates, there are no buttons on this new iPod, and you do everything by touch. So you make a phone call by touching an e-mail address in the little iPod's address book. Notice I said "e-mail address." You don't call using a telephone number. Everybody worth calling has an e-mail address, right? Apple's being very clever. And the calls made by the iPod Touch can be video calls, using a camera facing you when you hold it. (It has a camera on the other side, too, for taking videos of the kids or snapshots of your friends in the softball league.)
   There's a catch. But it's not a big thing. You can only call someone with the same model iPod Touch. Or someone with an iPhone. It has to be an iPhone 4, which can also make (and receive) calls using someone's e-mail address.
   As you can see now, Apple's being very clever indeed, because this new method of calling will make a lot of money -- for Apple. And not a cent for AT&T or Sprint or Verizon. Or any other cellular carrier. You need an Apple product to do it.
   Fortunately, the iPhone 4 is all over the place. It's the best-selling "smart" cell phone (they call them "smartphones") ever made. And Apple expects the iPod Touch to be a sort of iPhone Jr. -- an iPhone without the extra charges, with all the same features except regular phone dialing.
   How does it do this? Simple. The Touch makes calls over the Internet. I can hear murmurs in the back -- your laptop can do that already, right? Using Skype. It's free.
   And it's a laptop. Do you want to carry your laptop around just to make phone calls? Especially when you can do it with a device the same size as a cell phone? All you need is a wi-fi connection. Many of you already have one in your home, using a wireless router.
   The Touch starts at $229, with versions having extra memory costing up to $399. (You don't need the extra stuff.) It uses Apple's FaceTime software to make Internet calls, and you can turn off the font-facing camera if you're shy.
   Apple stores (there's one in Carousel Mall) and Apple's Web-based store at www.apple.com sell the new iPod Touch. Many other stores sell the iPods, too, but be sure you're getting the new Touch and not the older one if you shop at Walmart or Best Buy. These retailers are likely to have the older model in stock in addition to the new one.
   Note: Google has come up with its own way of bypassing the phone company. It's a free voice-calling function built into Google's Gmail. I'll take a look at that next week.