Cyberclinic

The second most talked about feature of the iPhone 4, aside from its much-documented but rarely-observed ability to drop calls when you grip it like a badly-behaved scrubbing brush, is FaceTime. Video calls from one side of the globe (or the room) to the other, via Wi-Fi, for free. Suddenly, the telecoms provider you used to pay for those late-night chats to Auckland or Auchtermuchty is surplus to requirements – and not only that, you can watch someone scratch their nose or bite their lip without forking out for the privilege. No one could deny that this represents a colossal bargain, if you conveniently ignore the eye-watering sum the phone costs in the first place. But there are already a number of apps available for a range of phones that deprive the mobile networks of cash and save us money by routing texts and voice over the internet via Wi-Fi or 3G; normally these calls and messages would whittle away at the allowance that comes with your price plan, but there are options that are completely free.

The latest of these apps comes from New Jersey telecoms company Vonage who, in a spirit of overwhelming generosity, are offering free calls across the internet between mutual Facebook friends. Download the app, log on to Facebook, and an address book of your friends who are toting the same app will appear. Prod their name with a finger, and you can talk to your heart's content, whenever, wherever. Well, in theory. While such services are supposed to work over 3G when you're out and about, they suffer because of latency issues; you tend to get long silences followed by both parties talking at once, rather like a failed pilot for a misconceived chat show. In addition, the terms of service with your mobile phone contract may prohibit these kind of 3G shenanigans in any case. So, while we wait for super-fast next-generation mobile networks (don't hold your breath, or indeed a red-hot iron bar) you can only really guarantee frustration-free internet chat via Wi-Fi – therefore, mostly at home. It's still cheaper than your landline, though. Latency isn't an issue with text messages, however, and app vendors have had no problem in replicating SMS communication at zero cost. What's odd is our failure to use such apps, and collectively flick the V-signs at the mobile networks who have charged such eye-watering sums over the years for an SMS service that costs them next to nothing to provide. The absurdity is particularly highlighted these days, when you can post 1,000 messages to Twitter in a month for free, but sending those same messages via SMS might cost you £5 (or much more). An incident last week where a Vodafone customer noticed that he was being charged 15p for every text he sent that was longer than 160 characters – despite being on an unlimited text plan – indicates that the networks still want to prise cash out of us for sending minuscule chunks of data. But apps for Blackberry, Android and Apple devices, such as WhatsApp and Hello Messenger, allow truly unlimited text communication for nothing. Let us rise up as one and embrace them, if we can be bothered.

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The phrase "iPod oblivion" is now regularly used to describe the way we're digitally distracted by hand held electronic devices, particularly while walking around busy towns and cities. It seems to have been coined in Australia – although a policeman in Victoria showed a healthy contempt for the phrase when he remarked to the BBC: "You call it iPod oblivion, I call it stupidity".

But the AA has done a survey in the UK, which reveals that about 17 collisions a day between vehicles and pedestrians are directly caused by people so deeply immersed in the delicate musical stylings of AC/DC et al that they fail to notice cars rapidly approaching. Newspapers of a more hysterical bent than this one have alerted us to the "zombie-like state" that modern technology can supposedly send us into. I suppose it's just conceivable that you could listen to Guns N' Roses at such a volume as to make you briefly imagine you were Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, but texting and emailing while manoeuvring through traffic is undoubtedly more of a danger. Multitasking is difficult at the best of times, but humans are only in the earliest stages of evolving the ability to type and walk simultaneously. Practise in your living room before attempting to cross the A24 at rush hour.

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