There's little, it seems, that the Internet doesn't provide: low-cost electronic publishing, global E-mail delivery, instant access to every kind of digital information and service. Now, it's promising "free" phone calls between any two Net computers, more or less, and for no more money than the usual connection fee.
As it turns out, this is another one of those Internet concepts that seem to offer exciting potential if not high-quality results just yet. It's sort of like the idea of finding whatever information you need on the Net. Sure, its computers are crammed with information, but as all Web surfers soon discover, much of it is trivial.
MEETING PLACE. Likewise, the Internet can transmit speech cheaply, but not in a satisfying or easy way. Right now, an Internet voice call has little of the tone or intimacy of a regular phone call. It's more like talking over CB radio. Still, it costs little to try, and when they work well, Internet voice calls can be entertaining and useful. Besides saving money on long-distance communications--even across oceans--Internet phoning can enhance computer games. Eventually, phoning via the Internet may serve as an inexpensive method for training and conference calls.
How to get started? First, you'll need basic Internet knowhow and some patience. For hardware, you'll need a Windows-compatible computer with a 50-megahertz 486 processor, a sound card, a speaker, and a microphone. (Most Internet phone-software packages work only with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, but there are programs available for Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintoshes and for Unix computers.) A 28.8-kilobits-per-second modem is best, though some packages can work with 14.4-kbs models. Also required is a SLIP/PPP connection to the Internet.
There's already a choice of software. Trial versions are available at no charge directly from the Web sites of several suppliers (table). Even in compressed form, these lengthy programs can take 15 minutes or more to download into your machine. Also, each is programmed to work only for a limited time. VocalTec Inc.'s Internet Phone allows just 60 seconds of calling time, for instance. You're free to take more than one copy--or pay $49.95 for a limitless version. Internet Telephone Co.'s WebPhone program, which was available free prior to Jan. 1, 1996, now costs $49.95.
Each program does essentially the same thing--make your PC's sound card convert the microphone's analog signals into a string of digital packets of data that move separately across the Net like envelopes in a postal system. Depending on the Net's traffic conditions at any given moment, consecutive packets may take different routes through the Net and arrive out of order. At the receiving end, telephony software will try to compensate, but it's often impossible for the program to reconstruct the original signal completely.
None of this software is simple to install or use. There are numerous network and computer parameters to set, and you'll need to plug in specifics about your Internet addressing, for instance. It took me and a friend more than an hour to get VocalTec's package to work. For WebPhone, I sought the supplier's assistance.
TOUGH TALK. Once we had the software installed, we found out just how different from conventional telephone calling Internet phone setups are. The sound is choppy, syllables drop out of words, and it can take several seconds for voices to traverse the Net. Each party must take turns speaking--and they must be using the same brand of software. You must either arrange a time to converse or scan your supplier's online directory to find others around the world who are online and looking for conversation. Directories often list people's preferred topics of conversation, which range from the personal to lofty technical matters.
Which software to choose? As the first to market, VocalTec's package has become the most popular. Internet Telephone's WebPhone looks the best--like a futuristic telephone with lots of point-and-click buttons. Quarterdeck Corp. plans to enhance its WebTalk with a variety of multimedia tools to help people collaborate over the Internet. You can keep up with the technology's rapid evolution by seeing what enthusiasts post to the independently run Voice on the Net E-mail list: Send the message, "subscribe von-digest," to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, Internet telephony reminds me of the dancing elephant in a circus: One is more impressed that it can dance at all than with the dance itself. But at this stage, teaching the Internet new dances is really what it's all about.