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.
1. 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 in-box.
2. 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.
3. 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.)
4. 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.