To many people over the age of 30, text messaging can seem like one of those strange, complicated behaviors only teenagers understand. In reality, it's one more great tool in your productivity arsenal, right up there with e-mail and instant messaging.
In function, texting treads a fine line between those two communication capabilities, essentially serving as a basic form of e-mail for even the simplest of today's cell phones. Text messaging relies on a decades-old technology called SMS--Short Message Service--that's used to relay brief messages (usually no more than 160 characters, equivalent to a couple of average-length sentences).
Teens typically use texting for trivial cell-to-cell communication ("WHERE R U?", "AT THE MALL!"). But savvy travelers can leverage SMS for a whole lot more. Let your thumbs do a little walking (over your phone's keypad) and you can check flight status, update your calendar, track a package, check your bank balance, and get driving directions to almost anywhere.
You don't even always need your thumbs: Some services let you send messages and retrieve information using just your voice. Best of all, most of these text-messaging marvels cost nothing to use--though you'll want to check with your carrier to see how many messages (if any) are allowed as part of your monthly plan.
- Remember Your Appointments and Schedule New Ones
Can't remember what time your next meeting takes place? If you're a Google Calendar user, you can find out in a flash: Just send a message with the word "next" to GVENT (dial 48368) and you'll get back the time and details of your next scheduled event. Send "day" for a full list of today's appointments and "nday" for tomorrow's.
Google Calendar also lets you add new events via SMS--and you can use plain English to do it. For example: "Lunch with Joe at Panera Bread tomorrow at noon." Shoot a message like that to GVENT, and Google will add it to your calendar with all the appropriate details.
Finally, you can configure Google Calendar to send automatic reminders in advance of an event. For any existing entry, click Edit Event Details, then Add a Reminder. Choose SMS from the list of options, and then specify how far in advance of the event the notification should arrive.
Before you can leverage Google Calendar's SMS features, you have to configure it for use with your phone. In your Web browser, open Google Calendar and click the Settings link, then choose Mobile Setup. Follow the simple cues to enable cell-phone notifications, and you're all set.
Of course, Google Calendar isn't the only game in cyberspace. Services like PingMe and Sandy can deliver notifications to your phone and process new reminders that you send from it. And Kwiry helps you remember things you're supposed to do by routing text messages created on your phone to your e-mail inbox.
- Track Packages, Calories, and Cash
A number of Web services now offer alerting and information options via SMS to help keep you in the loop. For example, are you dying to know when your newly ordered MacBook Air will arrive? Forward your delivery-confirmation e-mail to TrackMyShipments.com, and you'll subsequently receive SMS updates on your package's status, location, and delays (if any). You can also monitor your own shipments by sending its tracking number to a special e-mail address.
If you're watching your weight, Diet.com can help you count your calories. Text any major restaurant chain's name and menu item to DIET1 (dial 34381) and Diet.com will shoot you back the nutrition stats: calories, fat, carbs, and protein.
Quicken Online can send you a text-message reminder when a bill is due, so you won't have to worry about racking up late fees. Other Web-based money managers like Buxfer and Mint offer even more SMS-alert options: They can notify you of low balances, unusual spending, and large deposits (such as a paycheck). You can even record transactions (great for tracking expenses on the run) or request an account balance.
- Compose Text Messages with Your Voice
Most people who hate text messaging do so for the simple reason that's such a hassle to compose messages using a cell-phone keypad. You could always upgrade to a keyboard-equipped phone like the AT&T Tilt, LG Voyager, or RIM BlackBerry Curve, but even those models are "all thumbs" when it comes to text input. Plus, it probably seems excessive to spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone just for the sake of easier text messaging.
Instead, let your voice do the legwork--or fingerwork. A free service called Jott will transcribe your spoken message into text and deliver it via SMS to anyone in your contact list (which you have to set up in advance on the Jott site). Just speed-dial Jott from your cell phone, say the name of the person you want to contact, and then start talking. (Remember to keep it short: Text messages can't be longer than a few sentences.) This is also a much safer way to send a message while you're at the wheel. (Note, however, that some states ban or discourage using the phone while driving, or are considering laws against it.)
- Get Driving Directions
If your phone lacks GPS and you need to find your way between points A and B, let SMS be your guide. Before you hit the road, head to MapQuest in your desktop browser and input your destination. Once the site generates the driving directions, click the Send to Cell option and enter your cell number. In seconds you'll receive a text message containing a link to turn-by-turn directions for your route.
If you're away from your PC, tap Google SMS for on-the-fly navigation. Create a new message with your starting point and destination, then send it to GOOGLE (dial 466453). In return, you'll receive Google Maps directions in one or more text messages (depending on the length of the route). You can also get an actual map by texting "map" and your location.
Need directions but don't want to take your hands off the wheel? Dial 800-FREE-411, 800-GOOG-411, or DIRECTIONS (dial 347-328-4667) for voice-prompted assistance. State your starting address and where you want to go; all three services will whip up directions and shoot them to your phone via SMS. Best of all, they're free. You pay only standard calling and text-message charges.
- Search Google From the Road
Google SMS offers more than just driving directions: You can text your way to stock quotes, movie showtimes, currency conversions, and much more. The trick lies in remembering the proper syntax to receive the information you want. To access Google's glossary, for instance, your message should read "Define" and then the word. Looking for a particular business in your area? Send the business name (or category, such as "pizza") and the zip code or the city and state. If you can't remember the proper format for a particular inquiry, just send "help" or "tips" to Google SMS (dial 466453), and the service will send you a cheat sheet.
4INFO offers a similar batch of SMS services, but adds helpful extras like package tracking and a Wi-Fi hotspot finder. You'll find fun stuff, too, such as jokes, drink recipes, and pickup lines. You can also sign up for text-message alerts: 4INFO will send you the game scores for your favorite teams, educate you with a word of the day, and even deliver Craigslist ad updates (so you can swoop in the moment playoff tickets go on sale).
- Keep Tabs on Flights...
Jet-setters can also tap Google SMS and 4INFO for flight information. Just text your airline and flight number to receive up-to-the-minute arrival and departure times. If you'd rather have flight updates pushed to your phone, head to FlightStats, sign up for a free account, and then set up some Flight Alerts. The site will send you a status report up to three hours before departure, notifications of any flight delays or cancellations, and a notification when the flight lands (helpful if you're on airport-pickup detail).
- ...And Keep Tabs on Friends
Fans of Twitter, the micro-blogging service that lets others know what you're doing at this very minute, will find SMS virtually indispensable for sending and receiving updates. Start by configuring your Twitter account to support text messaging: Click the Settings link and then click Phone & IM. Follow the instructions to enable your phone, then set Device Updates to "on." (While you're at it, click the Notices option and set "sleep" hours so you're not bothered by new messages all through the night.)
To receive text-message updates from your friends and family, click the Following link in your profile and set Device Updates to "on" for each person. To broadcast your own updates straight from your phone, text your messages to 40404.
- Transfer Files to Your Phone
Savvy users know that the easiest way to move a file between PCs is to e-mail it to yourself. So why not take the same approach for transferring a file to your phone? Unfortunately, it's not always that easy: Many phones balk at e-mail file attachments due to size or format. And what if your phone isn't set up to fetch e-mail anyway? Your only option is a traditional PC-to-phone connection, which usually requires a special cable or a complicated Bluetooth configuration.
Enter Beam It Up Scotty, a free Web-based service that leverages SMS to send just about any kind of file to your phone. Just browse your hard drive for the desired file--document, photo, MP3, movie, or whatever--and then choose a compression setting. Beam It Up Scotty can automatically optimize video and audio files for mobile-phone playback and can compress other kinds of files for speedier transfer.
Finally, enter your cell-phone number. Within a few minutes you'll receive a text message containing a link to download the file straight to your phone.
- Send Text Messages From Your PC
Suppose a text message arrives on your phone while you're sitting at your desk. Do you really have to peck out the reply on the phone's tiny keypad? Not if you know the recipient's phone number and carrier. Just fire up Outlook or any other mail client and compose your reply like an ordinary e-mail. The trick lies in knowing the proper way to address the message.
For example, e-mails sent to phones on the Sprint network must be formatted like this: email@example.com . To send e-mail-via-SMS to a Verizon customer, use firstname.lastname@example.org . You can find a full list of carriers and their text-message addresses at SMS 411.
If you don't know the recipient's carrier or can't remember all those different suffixes, take a shortcut: Send your e-mail to email@example.com . The free Teleflip service does the legwork for you, routing your message to the appropriate carrier. Whatever method you use, keep in mind that replies will come to your e-mail inbox, not to your cell phone--which can be a good thing if you're spending the day at your desk anyway.
- Archive Your Messages
Need to save an important message for posterity (or a pending court case)? In an ideal world, you'd simply connect your phone to your PC and copy the messages to your hard drive. Few phones can do that out of the box, however. But the free utility BitPim makes this possible for many models from LG, Motorola, Samsung, and Sanyo. You'll also need a USB cable that's compatible with your phone; check with the manufacturer (or eBay) to hunt down the proper cable.
To preserve only a select few messages (and avoid the hassles of software and cables), check out Treasuremytext. This free Web service archives and manages all messages forwarded from your phone. Later, you can visit the Treasuremytext site to review your messages, add notes, and organize them in custom folders.
Michigan-based writer Rick Broida has been covering the tech world for nearly 20 years. In addition to his contributions to PC World, he is author of The Cheapskate Blog.