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Archive for August 4th, 2008

50 MB of Penguin Power – PC Emulator with Embedded Linux

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DSL – Damn Small Linux

By now you have probably heard about Linux. Maybe you wanted to try it out and see what it was all about. Then you found out that to install Linux you had to create a new partition on your hard disk, or buy a new hard disk, make a dual boot system, or otherwise disturb your beautiful MS Windows operating system. Then, if you got it installed how would you get if off your system when you were done playing with it? How would you get rid of the dual boot software – grub or lilo – and get the Microsoft boot blocks back on your hard disk?

Well heck, where there is a will there is a way.

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Written by frrl

August 4, 2008 at 8:10 pm

What’s the (Black) Magic in the Jack. Voice over IP

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The Magic in the Jack

You have probably heard this hype all before. Perpetual Motion machines; the carburetor that can make a car get 80 miles per gallon; and the various gadgets and devices that are designed to separate people from thier money.

There’s a sucker born every minute

Over here at Southern Command we have a department called “We wasted our money on this so you don’t have to waste yours”. The hype on the magicJack got our attention.

Voice over IP

At the time of this writing – 2008 – there are many Voice over IP providers. A few of the more popular ones are Vonage, Comcast, and AT&T. Checking the net, there are about 50 providers of Voice over IP worldwide.

So what’s the difference with magicJack

One would think that magicJack would get lost in the list of the 50 or so providers of Voice over IP providers. At some point, all of these commercial providers are providing a commodity service. Some features may be different but all these folks provide almost an undifferentiated service of VoIP to those customers who have an existing high speed network connection.

$360/yr vs $20 per year for unlimited service

What differentiates the magicJack from all the others is the price. Typical costs for providers such as Vonage and Comcast is about $30 a month. That works out to be about $360 per year.

The price for magicJack device and one YEAR of service is $20. Now how can that be?

Taking the Bait

We decided to be the sucker and give it a try. It was a $40 risk – or, 8 cups of Starbucks coffee.

We ordered The Jack on line at This on line sale process will make every attempt to upsell you on additional features. For example, you can purchase 5 years (pre-pay – good for them) at a discount and you can get expedited shipping for an additional fee.

The minimum cost you can get away with is $39.95. This is the cost of the magicJack device and one year of unlimited domestic phone service.

We ordered the magicJack and it arrived in about 4 days – we opted out for the upsell of expedited shipping.


Installation of the magicJack device is a breeze. You plug it into the USB port of any PC. You will find that the PC sees the magicJack as two drives on your PC. One of the drives is non-writable and this contains the magicJack software. The other drive is writable.

The writable drive on the magicJack USBdevice holds your phone book, call log, address book, your phone number information, and other customizations. So, you can take the magicJack with you and use it on different PC’s if you like. All your personal and customizable information is on the device.

Pluging in the magicJack into your PC for the first time will start the software installation process. This also includes the configuration process which will ask you to choose a phone number from an available list of area codes. So pick a phone number of your choice that is available. You can pretend you are anyplace in the country by choosing the area code for that location and an available phone number.

Connecting a telephone. Connect a PC headset – your choice

One end of the magicJack fits into the USB port of your PC. The other end of The Jack has a RJ11 connector. So you can connect a traditional telephone to The Jack via a standard telephone cable. So just take your existing phone out of the wall jack and put it into The Jack.

Your other option is to not use a traditiional physical telephone and use a PC headset connected to your PC. If you use this option then you will use the magicJack GUI to “dial” the phone.

We were able to get the magicJack up and running with a traditional physical telephone in about 10 minutes. We made a few test calls to our home phone. All went well.

The Stress Test

We decided to give the magicJack the industrial stress test. Due to the nature of our job we spend at least 5 hrs a day on the phone. This is mostly conference calls to a global conferencing system. This is the age of the global workforce and global virtual teams. Because the telecommunication system and the internet are uniquitious and reliable, for some jobs, geographic location becomes irrelevant for many types of business communications and collaboration. Typical ways of working for global virtual teams include internet desktop sharing along with audio over traditional telecommunications lines to a toll free conferencing system. We decided to use the magicJack for the audio part of our regular collaborative work sessions.

DTMF Tones

The first problem we ran into is that the magicJack does not cleanly transmit DTMFtones when using a traditional telephone key pad. This disallows one to manage a telephony based conferening system. Such conferencing systems require security host and participant codes entered via DTMF.

In general, this inability to cleanly transmit DTMF tones would disallow anyone using the magicJack and a physical telephone to use any type of response based system that requires DTMF tones.

The solution to this is to use the mouse to press the simulated keypad on the magicJack GUI keypad. This problem with DTMFtones foiled our plan use the magicJack on a server PC with a wireless phone connected. We expected we could just use the wireless handset and forget about using any PC interface to manage The Jack. To bad for us.

The fact that the magicJack could not cleanly transmit DTMF tones using a physical phone ruined our plan. Posting to a magicJack newsgroup the magicJack folks confirmed this was a known problem. But they do not tell you this on their web site. Mitigation for his known problem is to use the magicJack GUI to send tones. Maybe The Jack folks will fix this problem in the future.


You should realize that you do not have any SLA (Service Level Agreement) with the magicJack folks and that you are operating over a public internet with no SLA. This is much different than the circuit-switched system of the traditional telephone company. In a traditional telephone call, once the circuit is set up you own that circuit until the call ends. Not so with the internet. There is no dedicated circuit and no packet routing based on quality of service and packet type. Packets that are late or missing for an internetdata transfer can be recovered (requested again and/or reassembled in order at receiving end). Packets that are VoIP that are lost, late, or missing are deadly to voice which depends on real time reception of packets in the nearly correct order.

During the first week we had The Jack the system (infrastructure) went down for about 6 hours one day. Monitoring the magicJack discussion groups our outage was confirmed across the country by other Jack users. No SLA. So don’t complain.

“Get off the Jack”

The magicJack infrastructure was working almost all the time during the week that we gave it the industrial stress test. However, we experienced many dropped packets to the point that team members encouraged me to “Get off the Jack”.

For business use, it is not about cost it’s about quality. Nearly a decade ago Cisco systems was promoting VoIP to business users to replace an office PBX. One of the first questions asked was “Is it business quality?”

Our experience is that The Jack is not business quality. One is at the mercy of the public Internet and the particular infrastructure in use by magicJack. You have no SLA or guaranteed service quality with either.

Suffice it to say, one week of use and The Jack was history for business use.

How to correctly use The Jack

What magicJack is useful for is casual conversations. That is, call your mom, dad, sister, brother, and your friends. For these purposes, where quality and reliability is not of critical need The Jack is a great low cost solution to traditional telephony providers and to more well known VoIP providers.

The magicJack can be used to make calls to others who have traditional telephony providers as well as PC-to-PC phone calls. The PC to PC calls that do not have to go through traditional telephony providers are excellent quality. However, now you are in a Skype world – and Skype is free. Why pay $39.95 for The Jack if you are going to make all PC-to-PC calls.


The magicJack has a 30 day no risk return policy. We decided to keep The Jack at the cost of $39.95 – the cost of the device and one year of service.

Once you have the device an additional year of service is $19.95. At the time of this writing this beats the pants off of Vonage at $29 per month. The Jack provides a huge savings opportunity. (Vonage at $360 per year and The Jack at $20 per year)

One wonders how the magicJack can provide this service at about 1/12 the cost of traditional providers such as Vonage and Comcast. It would seem that Vonage and Comcast have huge markups or The Jack people have some Black Magic behind the scenes.

The magicJack Terms of Service say that they can end service at any time for any reason without notice. Perhaps its those pages in the unseen magicJack Business Plan that hold the answer to the pricing of the magicJack service. Note that when you purchase The Jack you pre-pay for one year of service for which delivery has yet to be made. The upsell is to get you to pre-pay for five years of service – for which delivery has yet to be made. Given that, we’d like to see the exit strategy in that business plan. That is where one may find the (Black) Magic of the Jack.

Do you remember the Magicians trick … “Now you see it – now you don’t…”

Written by frrl

August 4, 2008 at 4:12 am

Posted in Technical Articles and Reviews

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