Buzz family, friends via voice service

November 01, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

For most of us, using the Internet to make a phone call doesn't make a whole lot of sense. After all, you can make a real, honest-to-goodness phone call anywhere in the country and chat for 20 minutes for less than a buck by using one of those "10-10" long-distance outfits. The audio quality of the public telephone network is excellent, and you don't have to put up with flaky software, echoes, lags, voices that break up in midsentence, balky servers and all the other hassles that Internet telephony involves.

I know because I've tried most of these Internet telephone services and gadgets -- for the most part, they're more trouble than they're worth. Still, I'm glad that programmers and engineers keep trying. If they ever overcome the twin problems of limited bandwidth and the very nature of the the system -- which was never designed to transmit a continuous stream of voice or video -- Internet telephony could be a boon for international callers and businesses with far-flung operations that need to keep in touch.

Meanwhile, there are some useful and entertaining applications for voice over the Internet. A few months ago, for example, I got a lot of positive feedback from a column about attaching voice messages to regular e-mail, which requires nothing more than a microphone and Microsoft Windows' built-in voice recorder.

Unfortunately, the three-step process to send voice by e-mail (recording the message, saving it to disk and attaching it to a message) seemed to puzzle many novice users. Thus I was intrigued by a new Web-based service called BeeCall, which bypasses e-mail altogether and sends voice messages directly from one user to another almost instantaneously. You can also use BeeCall to chat interactively, although it's not as convenient as making a telephone call.

To use BeeCall, you and your correspondents must register on the company's Web site (www.beecall.com) and download a small program that runs under Windows 95/98 and announces itself through a bumblebee icon in your Windows system tray. When you activate it by clicking on the bee, an unobtrusive control bar pops up with two buttons, labeled "Listen" and "Talk."

To initiate a message, you click on the Talk button, select your recipient from a drop-down list and choose either "Instant vMail" or "Intercom." To send vMail, a single click turns on the recorder and another turns it off. As soon as you're done talking, BeeCall transmits the message. If your recipient has the BeeCall control bar on display, he hears a beep; if not, the bee icon in his system tray starts blinking.

To play a message you've received, just click the play button. If there's more than one message waiting, the name of the sender of the next message will appear in a window in the control bar. You can sccroll back and forth through the list, replay messages and delete them when you're through.

To initiate a chat session, click on the "Intercom" button and your partner's on-screen ringer will sound. Once he or she answers, you can chat online, but the system is half-duplex, which means you can't transmit and receive at the same time. As a result, you have to hold down the shift key or click a "Talk" button to make your end of the conversation heard -- more like a two-way radio than a phone system.

Depending on Internet traffic, there can also be a lag of several seconds between the time you stop talking and the time your correspondent hears your voice. This kind of gap doesn't matter with one-way messaging, but it can be annoying in an online conversation.

Still, the quality of the transmission is excellent, without the breakups or distortions normally caused by Internet packet-switching and data compression. If you want to hear the voices of your friends and family, BeeCall is fun and easy to use.

In case you're wondering why the service is free, BeeCall was developed by a Hoboken, N.J.-based start-up named eCall, which uses it to showcase the voice technology it hopes to sell to corporate customers and Internet Service Providers. The development team includes veterans of Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies and AT&T, and their expertise shows.

Next item: If you enjoy chat rooms and want to use your voice instead of the keyboard, surf over to Excite (www.excite.com), one of Internet's popular Web portals. There you can download a small Web browser plug-in that lets you talk online with other members in a variety of special-interest groups.

Like BeeCall, Excite's Voice Chat requires that you press a key to talk. To let you know what's going on, there's a list of chat room participants on the right side of the screen -- as each one talks, his or her name is highlighted.

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