Thursday, May 9, 2013

Essential Apps for Family Communications

Recently I had the need to spend some time at the N.C. Children's Hospital at UNC. I don't want to go into details of the personal aspects of this, but I do want to tell you that this hospital was amazing and I'm a big fan of their nurses and doctors. If you want to read some reports of the amazing things they do, I encourage you to like them on facebook. The stories of what they are doing there will blow you away.  Also, every year I run in the race that benefits them, the Krispy Kreme Challenge, and I encourage you to experience that race as a runner or spectator once in your life.  The K2C is a true bucket list event.

In getting ready for this visit, I loaded up my phone (Android) and Nexus 7 tablet (again Android) with three essential applications to make our stay more enjoyable.  I had games as well, but I wanted to tell you about the "communications" applications I used.  It is worth noting that most of these applications are network greedy.  This wasn't a problem as the NC Children's hospital had great Wifi in the rooms.  I would strongly recommend each of these apps to anyone.  I now also use them to stay in touch with my family when I travel.


I am one of the last people I know to have tried Netflix.  In the hospital, they had local TV, but some of the channels were grainy and while they had the typical kids channels, the fact is you can't always expect to find age appropriate TV on.  With Netflix, whenever we got bored, we were able to load up just about every kids television series and first off episode after episode.  I was impressed with such a shared Wifi network that we almost never saw buffering issues.  We did see some freeze-ups maybe twice per day, but it was easy enough to just stop the app and restart.  The Netflix app keeps track of where in the show you are at, so upon restart we were off and watching again.  I'm not sure if the freeze-ups were due to the Wifi or not, but it is worth noting that the Wifi was pretty aggressive about kicking people off (requiring re-signin) that were idle.

Since the visit, I use Netflix to watch some of their original series.  Currently I'm watching Lillyhammer as I'm a big Steven Van Zandt fan.  I have to admit the choices, other than the original series, for an adult are a bit light.  Certainly the kids programming is much more extensive than what appeals to me as an adult.  I look forward to Netflix streaming to expand into more original series as well as movies and television shows.  I personally hope that Hollywood and the TV broadcasters start to release more control of their programming following the digital path to the money like the music industry did.

Install Netflix

Google Talk

Both my older son and I have a Nexus 7 tablet.  While doing cross iOS/Apple and Android video chat is still hit or miss, doing Android to Android through Google Talk works very well.  We used this application to do video chat during the stay to keep the rest of the family.  There was even a point where my sons watched TV together.  They had been planning on watching the Kids' Choice Awards previous to the hospital stay and they were able to watch it together with us in the hospital and my older son on the couch at home.  Even though doing this was a bit of a waste of network, being able to do this made my son's very happy as it was almost like they were at home together.

Since the visit, I have given my son tours of the Las Vegas strip and other interesting locations via this app.  I use this to show live videos of places where a picture isn't enough to convey life in motion.

My google talk was installed as part of base Android.  I assume it would be on your Android device as well.


My older son isn't old enough for a cell phone.  We don't want him making phone calls nor doing text.  I do want him to be able to contact the family, so I set his tablet up with Voxer to keep in contact with just our family.  Voxer is the audio over the Internet (and text and pictures) equivalent the old Nextel click to talk.  If the person you are talking with isn't online at the time, you send a short audio message and they will get it once they get online.  If they are online, they can hear it live streaming.  Many times the conversation gets started and it's a quick back and forth set of audio messages, but much like text messages, if there is a few minutes before I respond, the conversation keeps going.  With the uncertain timing of events at a hospital having such a voice based, but asynchronous, communication application was very nice.

Since the visit, I have used Voxer for more than text tours of airports and locations for my family.  I have done walking tours of San Francisco, Washington DC, and Detroit leaving a string of voice and picture messages for my families to consume later.  Sometimes I sent these at times where they are at school or on another coast's time zone so this being asynchronous was key.

The Cloud

Also note that all three of these applications are either entirely public cloud hosted or have substantial cloud aspects.  I think this shows that the cloud is ready for massively social applications that have strong needs for network speeds and feeds (all of these include video and audio).  Given my focus on cloud I find this very encouraging.  I think the end user commercial world is cloud based and I believe the enterprise is very close behind.