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Science & Technology
Hearing Voices on
the Internet

For the record
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Hearing voices on the internet
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By Diana J. Choyce
Nov 08 - 14, 1999

Voice technology through the internet is opening a whole new world of voices. So many new applications are being developed its hard to keep up. From calling anywhere in the world for free to speaking with strangers as you surf the net, its a wide open field. And as with all things, the question for most companies is how to make a profit. For the consumer its how to save money. Telecoms, internet service providers, and even cellular phone companies have all jumped on the bandwagon. And the array of services are as varied as the internet itself.

In the area of chat, AOL expects to release a voice-enabled chat program at the end of this year. Their popular AIM (Instant Messenger) will allow users to speak to one another using their PC microphones. There is a beta version available for the strong of heart from AOL AIM home page. AIM has become a standard in messaging because it allows non-AOL users to communicate with AOL members. In the ongoing battle with Microsoft , AOL cried foul this year when MS released its own messaging software that allowed users to communicate with AOL users. AOL is now blocking MS from accessing its network.

Using your computer as a telephone is very enticing for consumers and businesses looking to save money and increase efficiency. It will take a few years to refine the developing applications but many are already available. The biggest problems appear to be compressing the transmissions without losing voice quality. Many companies offer the software free and use a pre-pay plan for making your calls. IP Telephony service has become very popular with European companies. Given that their phone connections are said to be spotty at best and the costs high, using the internet is a logical step.

Companies have embraced voice technology for various reasons. One application is using it to stay in contact with their customers. Many e-commerce sites say they are losing customers at the last minute before they decide to make a purchase. Sometimes its because of their timidity to buy items online, and many times it is because there are questions that aren't answered on their website. New applications allow a one click telephone connection directly with customer service departments. Either by real time or by having the call switched which notifies the company who then calls the customer over regular phone lines. They are hoping this direct contact approach will make users feel more secure in using their shopping services.

Another application is the use of the internet to make calls within a companies own local network. This is especially important for companies with overseas offices and could save them a substantial amount of money. Quite simply by connecting to an IP gateway, they can make toll free calls over the internet or intranet just as if they were calling an extension down the hall. Depending on the software and hardware they can have over well over 300 "extensions" and more. Included in these software packages are the means to also use caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, and many other normal telephone services.

And for efficiency there is also the added advantage of routing calls to

the appropriate office or sales agent.

Needless to say telecom companies are not happy with this new technology. However as usual they have found a way around losing profits by investing in many of the companies that are developing these applications. Two years ago Deutsche Telekom AG invested $30 million dollars and received a 21 percent stake in Vocaltec which is now offering multiple IP voice applications. The same year Telecom Italia and France Telecom, as well as Microsoft,invested in another provider Efusion. By now these investments should be paying handsome benefits to the telecoms who had the foresight to invest in the early stages.

Another new use for voice over IP is being by cellular phone companies. Ericsson has announced its Messaging-over-IP, which is designed to offer messaging,e-mail, voice mail, and fax mail over a mobile phone without using a computer. In October of this year Motorola and AOL teamed up to provide e-messaging, and information updates via their Web Without Wires plan. These products literally offer a way to log on to the internet anywhere in the world with just a cellular phone.

All in all voice over the internet technology should be a boon to both business and consumers. Assuming that users can afford to update their computers to keep up. And that businesses can update their equipment without passing the cost onto consumers. The internet has proven to be a worldwide meeting place on common ground. To be able to expand in this direction with voice capabilities should prove to make the next few years of development very exciting.