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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : With Internet Phone, Talk Is Literally Cheap

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Remember CB radios? Or maybe you’re a little older and spent more time as a ham radio operator, talking to others like yourself all over the world.

Well, the latest thing on the Internet may remind you of all that. It’s called Internet Phone, and it’s a relatively easy-to-use piece of software that, with the right kind of Internet connection, turns your computer into a sort of ham radio.

Using Internet Phone, you can actually talk over the Internet. Use it to create a private channel and you can speak privately to anyone else using the same software and connection. Or tap into a more general channel and talk to anyone else who happens to be on that channel at the same time, wherever in the world that person might happen to be.

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For most of us right now, with our cheap sound cards and low-rent Internet connections, Internet Phone is no threat to AT&T.; The sound quality is mediocre, and without better equipment two people can’t talk at once, so it’s helpful to say “over” when you’ve said something, just like in the old movies. (I’m hoping to get in a “roger, wilco” one of these days, too.)

All that said, Internet Phone really does work. The question you no doubt have at this point is: “Yes, but why would anybody use it?” The answer is that talking over the Internet is a lot cheaper than calling long-distance, especially from overseas, where phone rates are typically much higher than in the United States.

Indeed, VocalTec Inc., the company that produces the software, is based in Israel, and it has used Internet Phone to reduce the large phone bills it was running up calling its U.S. office in Northvale, N.J. The company says its proprietary compression technology keeps Internet Phone from hogging too much bandwidth. And deflecting criticism that it was using the public Internet Relay Chat network to enable Internet Phone to work, the company has started its own Internet Relay Chat network to take care of this function.

(Camelot Corp. of Dallas offers a competing product called DigiPhone in stores; you can order it on the Net for $99, but an evaluation copy isn’t available for download. The company is on the Web at https://www.ikon.com/digiphone/.)

For many purposes Internet Phone is ready for prime time now, if you have the right equipment. The ideal setup is a computer with a sound card that allows “full duplex,” which means it lets both parties in the conversation talk at the same time, the way they do in real life. No more “over.”

What you’ve got then isn’t just a global computer network. It’s a phone system.

To me, Internet Phone, Real-Audio sound and CU-SeeMe video conferencing (covered in recent columns) are three of the most exciting technologies in cyberspace today--ones that will help the Internet change the way we receive information and communicate with one another.

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As I said, Internet Phone works fine right now. You can try it for free by downloading the software from VocalTec’s World Wide Web page at https://www.vocaltec.com, or by ftp at ftp.vocaltec.com (look in the pub subdirectory).

To use Internet Phone, you’ll need a 486 PC with 8 megabytes of RAM, Windows, a sound card and a microphone. The better your sound card and speakers, the better it will work. If you decide Internet Phone can really save you money, you’ll want to invest in a sound card that supports full duplex. (For more information, you can e-mail info@vocaltec.com.)

Note that the software you download will let you talk for only 60 seconds at a time before cutting you off. For unlimited use, you have to register the product, for $69. VocalTec will then e-mail you a registration code that removes the evaluation constraints.

I used Internet Phone to talk to my friend and sometime writing partner James in Silicon Valley. Normally such a call during the business day would cost something like 25 cents a minute, or perhaps $15 an hour. Our conversation on Internet Phone, by contrast, was virtually free.

We conducted our call by logging into one of the VocalTec servers and then establishing a private channel. This and other functions are fairly easy using the Internet Phone software.

I also spent some time using Internet Phone to talk to strangers using the Internet Relay Chat network. There is a general topic area with lots of users, who typically call one another at random and have nicknames, just as with regular IRC. In this general area, I had a nice conversation with Diane Easton in Hastings, Minn. Easton said she has been using Internet Phone for two months and really likes being able to talk to people all over the world using it.

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She rarely wants for somebody to talk to. “Because I’m a female, I don’t usually have to call anybody,” she said. She simply logs on, and “in a few seconds, somebody will call me.” She said that, except for a single instance, the callers have all been polite.

As in regular IRC, there is a host of channels focusing on specialized topics, and you can create such a topic any time. Of course, the list already includes more than one having to do with sex.

BTW: Bonehead that I am, last week I misdescribed PGP keys in an attempt to correct an earlier error. So here’s the lowdown, thanks to a number of sharp readers, especially Eduardo Subelman: To make your key pair, PGP randomly chooses two very large prime numbers and multiplies them. PGP then uses this product to generate both your public and secret keys.

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Daniel Akst welcomes messages at akstd@news.latimes.com.

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Easy Phone Fun

If you decide you really like using Internet Phone, you might want to try a package from San Diego-based Jabra Corp. called Jabra-Net. For $99, the company bundles its all-in-one-piece speaker and microphone with a registration code for VocalTec’s Internet Phone software. Also included is another program that lets you use your computer and modem as a regular telephone. The Jabra device, which sits entirely in the ear, worked nicely when I tried it. Jabra is at https://www.jabra.com/ on the World Wide Web, or send e-mail to info@jabra.com.

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