Internet Phone takes you from chat room typing to real chatting

Internet Phone 4.0 is one of several software packages that digitizes audio and
converts it to packets for conducting conversations across the Internet.


The packages can deliver online directories and electronic whiteboarding with the bonus
of drastically reduced long-distance charges-but only sometimes.


For this kind of telephony to work well, all the callers must be permanently connected
to the Internet, which is pretty unrealistic today.


Quality also is an issue. Compared with the clarity of analog calls over fiber-optic
lines, packets of digital transmissions on a high-traffic and semi-reliable wide area
network will have static and occasional sound gaps.


You can install Internet Phone from diskettes or download it the World Wide Web. Either
way, installation is automatic and easy. If your system is already configured for sound,
Internet Phone will launch a test utility for audio performance.


The software readily recognized and used my hacked-together test system, so I would
expect it to work very well with factory-assembled PCs. In minutes, I was ready to go.


The first step was to register in the Global On-line Directory, an Internet repository
of Internet Phone users and electronic addresses.


This directory is a separate application included with the package, and it has
facilities for looking up chat rooms as well as individuals.


You needn't register yourself to use Internet Phone. Registration merely enables others
to call you without knowing your IP address.


If you have a permanent, static IP address, people can phone you simply by referring to
it. This saves going through the Global On-line Directory, but it excludes the many LAN
users on non-TCP/IP networks and those with subnet masks.


Using Internet Phone is straightforward. From the Call Center, you initiate or answer a
call and simply start talking once the connection is established. You can place a call on
hold, mute the microphone and speaker, add names to a personal directory and collect
statistics on your calls.


The only thing I found lacking was the balloon help now common in most Microsoft
Windows applications. It would have been useful in figuring out the purpose of many of the
buttons in the windows.


One significant feature is Internet Phone's whiteboard, which lets you send electronic
sketches and messages while speaking. The whiteboard has a blank window and tools for line
drawing, freeform drawing, text, highlighting and erasing. It won't transmit files, but it
will let you capture windows or regions of screens for transmission.


It's point-to-point only and not for group meetings. However, the whiteboard does allow
fast and clear exchange of ideas across the Internet.


For multipoint conversations, you use Internet Phone's Chat Rooms function. You can
designate a whole work group to hold regular meetings this way and password-protect
against eavesdropping.


I tested Internet Phone on a 100-MHz 486DX4 PC with 16M of memory and a
28.8-kilobit/sec modem connection to an Internet provider. This is the minimum
configuration you would want for voice transmissions. A more serviceable configuration
would have a faster, permanent link with Integrated Services Digital Network or other
service.


With Internet Phone, I initiated calls to and received calls from several other people
with similar equipment but different Internet providers.


Voice quality wasn't bad, considering the temporary nature of the dial-up connection
and the digital packet communications pipe.


Virtually all words spoken on both sides were readily understandable. The frequency
range was reduced, however, so some nuances in voice tone and pitch got lost. Occasional
small gaps from delays across the dialup connection didn't hinder understanding.


Overall, the transmission quality was somewhat better than over cellular or other
wireless connections, but not as good as analog lines. If you're used to talking over
analog cellular service, you might consider Internet Phone a step up. But remember that
you can't just grab the receiver and dial.


However, if you communicate often with a handful of people across long distances, and
all of them have constant Net access, Internet Phone could pay for itself in a few
days-especially over ISDN, T1 or other fast and reliable connections.


Peter D. Varhol is chairman of the graduate computer science department at Rivier
College in Nashua, N.H.


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