Top Tech Tools for Bridging the Geography Gap

by Brian on October 20, 2006

in Only in Israel

When I visited Israel for the first time in 1984, making a long distance phone call was not for the weak of spirit. With no direct lines out of Israel overseas (at least not for those of us living in private apartments; maybe offices had them but I was just a poor student back in those days), what we had to do was call a specific number where an Israeli operator would take your details, then call back in 10-15 minutes and place the call for you when a line was “free,” all the while charging an exorbitant fee.

At the time, there was something charming about the whole low-tech process. The operators were usually eager to practice their English and would often engage in a lengthy conversation before getting down to business.

“How’s the weather where you are?” “You still have family in the States?” “What do you think about this whole Lebanon mess?” (referring to the first conflict that started back in 1982).

The overall experience then seemed to confirm that Israel was nothing more than a third world backwater out of step with modern world, and that the 8,145 miles separating Jerusalem from California where my family lives were not only a physical but a figurative representation of Israel’s technological isolation.

How things have changed in the last 22 years.

The Israel of 2006 is every bit as computer savvy and communications-sophisticated as the rest of the Western world, and any distance from our little corner of the world to the U.S., Europe or the Far East is being rendered increasingly irrelevant.

I was thinking about this as we were having lunch with a friend who is here from the States for a year. Instead of taking a sabbatical year break, she’s been able to continue with her job at IBM as if she was there. Technology has evolved to such a point that her actual physical location means absolutely, positively nothing.

I’ve had a similar experience. In the last three years, I’ve kept a steady stream of consulting clients happy without ever meeting them in person.

It’s not just that the phone service has gotten better. In the last few years a number of key communications tools have come out that have made all the difference in bridging – no transforming – the geography gap.

So for anyone contemplating taking a year off or running an entire business from Israel – for that matter from anywhere overseas – here’s what I’ve found essential:

1. The Internet and Email. This almost goes without saying, I know, but I’ll repeat it here anyways. Before the Internet, living in Israel meant being cut off from the world. Newspapers in Israel – like most places – are primarily provincial and if you had a hankering to hear about more than the latest political machinations between Likud and Labor…well, you were out of luck. Now it’s all available in real time via a broadband connection that’s every bit as fast as one in Palo Alto or Fort Lauderdale.

Email is, similarly, a great leveler when it comes to two-way business and personal communications. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote a snail mail letter (much to my parents’ chagrin who would really prefer an old fashioned birthday card to the e-cards I routinely send out). Touch typing is the new penmanship.

2. Broadband Telephony. Companies like Vonage and Packet8 have broken the monopoly of the phone companies by redirecting phone communications via the Internet. While Vonage is positioned more as an alternative to the Verizons of North America, for us expatriates in exotic locations, it’s also a way of maintaining a U.S. presence anywhere we go (see this article on the Vonage website).

For example, I have a phone number with a Manhattan, New York area code. When someone calls me, they don’t need to know where I am. And I don’t bring it up. The phone rings in my office here and if I’m not available, it goes into voicemail and later shows up as a message in my email.

I conduct a lot of interviews with executives over the phone. Before I had Vonage, I would be forced to say something like “Hi, I’m calling from Israel. I know you probably won’t or can’t call me back, so please send me an email and let me know a good time and I’ll call you.” As you can imagine, it was nearly impossible to do business that way.

Sometimes I’ll be asked “you’re in New York right?” I’ll usually answer. “Yes, I’m on East Coast time.” Which is true. I’ll answer the phone up to midnight, 5:00 PM EST.

Although Vonage is my primary phone number, I’m a huge fan of Skype which I find provides the best call quality around for Internet telephony and, if you’re talking computer-to-computer, is absolutely free. I was once talking with my brother in San Francisco on Skype and I could hear everything as clear as if I was sitting in the room with him, including the sound of buses passing his street through the open window. Very cool.

Our latest trick: we have started using Skype to conduct video calls. So far, it’s only been between us in Israel and our parents in California who get a huge kick out of being able to see their grandchildren live if not in person. One time, though, I had set up a Skype call with a business client and I realized I had the camera set to turn on by default. I quickly hung up and disabled the video. I wasn’t wearing a shirt, you see! Maybe that’s why the video phone has never quite caught on.

3. Internet Radio. I love music. I listen to it at home, on the road, and in particular (since that’s where I spend most of my day) at my desk while I’m working. During my first extended visit to Israel, I was dismayed that there was only one pop music station – Reshet Gimel which at that time played mostly Euro disco crap and the U.K. Top 40. DJ Yoav Kutner played more alternative fare on Galei Tzahal – but for all of a whopping one hour a day. In certain parts of the country I could pick up John Peel’s 15 minute Friday afternoon roundup on the BBC’s tinny AM signal that faded in and out tempting me with snippets of The Smiths and the latest from The Cure.

I remember at some point, it must have been somewhere during 1985, thinking, “Well music isn’t that important to me. There are other reasons for being in Israel.” But music was important to me then – and now. Fortunately, Israeli radio options have improved. But the big change has been radio via the Internet.

I regularly listen to terrestrial radio stations from around the world that stream their signal via the web (KEXP, WXPN, and Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current are my latest faves), but what I really love are the Internet-only stations like the fabulous Radio Paradise, SomaFM and WOXY (the former broadcast station from Cincinnati turned Internet darling, first made famous by Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man who repeated the station’s catchphrase “97X Bam! The Future of Rock and Roll”).

And now with the advent of podcasting, I get delivered to my iTunes a daily download of new music that I synch up to my iPod and listen to during my exercise routine (check out Brian Ibbott’s Coverville, a brilliant show of just cover music).

4. Instant Messenging (IM). This is not just an online chatting tool for teenagers with too much time on their hands. I have worked with software developers around the world. In addition to the U.S. and Israel, I have had teams going in both Egypt and India. Now here’s the crazy thing: I have never spoken to any of the techies I work with by phone. It’s all via IM. Yes, sometimes it takes longer to write down what you want rather than saying it over the phone. But you also get a written record that you can review afterwards to make sure you got it right. Especially when you’re working with teams where English is not their mother tongue, this is not just an optional means of communication but a necessity.

In our house, we take it a bit too far, though. Since my home office is on the third floor and my kids are on the first, we regularly send each other IMs. It beats calling across the house “Abba, time for dinner!” Although there’s something rather odd about the idea that a message from one room to another is being routed through a central server somewhere in Seattle.

5. Peer-to-Peer File Sharing. OK, this may not be 100% essential for daily workday tasks, but it’s bridged another gap that has been particularly agonizing to a media-junkie like me. Regular readers know I like TV. The problem is, the TV we get in Israel just isn’t up to snuff. Especially the imported American shows that get here two years too late and aired at 1:00 AM when I invariably forget to set the Yes Max (Israel’s slow-witted answer to TiVo ). So the possibility of being able to get my favorite shows from abroad at the time they air there via peer-to-peer network sharing (such as Kazaa, LimeWire and BitTorrent) has radically altered my tube viewing habits. Remember my article on Battlestar Galactica a few weeks ago – the new season isn’t airing yet in Israel, but the U.S. is already up to episode four.

Now I can already hear you say: but that’s illegal. And I’ll admit when I first discovered the world of P2P, I dabbled in the dark side. But then my moral brain took over and I stopped BitTorrenting movies and music that I knew I could have, all right…should have, paid for. Now all that’s changing. Many of the major U.S. TV networks are streaming their top programs online for free. iTunes allows you to choose from a wide variety of episodes for $1.99 an episode. Google and Amazon are all getting into the game. There’s no reason to feel deprived any longer.

So there you have it. Five tech tools that have helped close the geography gap. Thinking of moving you or your business to Israel? Taking a sabbatical year without missing a beat? Now you have no excuse.

See you here…and online!


Got something you’d like to add? A tech trick or tool I missed that you think ought to be on the list. Drop me a line at, or leave a comment here on the blog.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Anonymous October 26, 2006 at 10:32 am

Another great blog!
During my six years in Israel (83 to 89) I felt like I was in a musical time warp. The Western stuff that would get play there was really only the mega-hits by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, or combinations of music by two of the three.
There was also a radio station, “broadcasting from somewhere in the Mediterranean” called the Voice of Peace. They had a little better playlist, but the signal was often hard to pick up. I can remember one Friday afternoon in 1987, there was a Turkish radio station playing some cuts from Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love record, which had just been released. I was in Maalot and thrilled that I could pick this station up. By the next day, the atmospheric conditions must have changed, and all that I could get at that frequency was static.
Today, in the US, I tend to listen to Sirius satelite radio, because there are no commercials. I get it in my home or car.
Again, another great blog!

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