Column: Internet telephony maturing

The keyboard-phobic can take heart from improving products for Internet telephony.

Communicating over the Internet is predicated by being able to type. This is great for those people who like keyboards and for those circumstances where written messages are appropriate.

However, even the most die-hard Internet fanatic still uses the telephone on those occasions when a two-way conversation is called for.

There has been a lot of interest in Internet telephony for a while, but until lately the technology has lagged behind the hype. However, with recent releases of some of the leading software, the products are now starting to catch up with the potential.

Basically, Internet telephony allows you to have voice conversations over the Internet at local rates. You need a PC, a modem, a sound card and microphone, and the software.

The hitch is that both you and your correspondent have to be online at the same time with the same software, ready for the conversation. But with a little co-ordination, this is not a problem.

You can call anywhere in the world for the price of your local connection.

Earlier versions of the software had a time-lag which caused an echo, but newer versions have overcome this problem.

The industry standard, I-Phone from VocalTec, is now in its fourth release. In addition to voice conversations, I-Phone version 4 supports voicemail and the exchange, editing and viewing of files.

With a feature called Web links, you can call others as you browse their home page or add a direct voice link to your own page and listen to what others have to say. The software costs under $180 (including GST) and comes with two licences--one for you and one for your correspondent.

I-Phone, distributed in New Zealand by Internet Telephone Technology, has about 750 users in New Zealand. “The exact number of users is hard to pin down,” says Guy King, marketing manager of ITT, “because people can download the software over the Net. We never hear from them unless they register, want to upgrade or have problems.

“Most of the users we know about use the software to talk to friends and relatives, but we are seeing more and more people use it for business and commercial purposes.”

An evaluation copy can be downloaded from http://www.vocaltec.com.

Another product due soon from VocalTec is Internet Conference which allows users to both speak and jointly view office documents over the Net for collaborative efforts.

Another Internet telephony product on the market is WebTalk from Quarterdeck, distributed and supported in New Zealand by Campbell Software in Wellington. It has similar capabilities as I-Phone. There are no free demo downloads for this one, however, but you can read about it at http://www.quarterdeck.com.

Internet telephony will catch on as more people use the technology and start to see the benefits. There are a few caveats such as: to use the stuff you have to be organised and co-ordinate with your correspondent. But the benefits--low-cost long-distance telephone access--far outweigh the hassles. And the technology will only improve. Keep your eye on this area as it will have a growing impact on the utility of the Internet.

(Parent is an Internet consultant at Creative Data. He can be contacted by email at pjp@iprolink.co.nz or via Creative Data’s Web page at http://www.cd.co.nz/cd.)

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