Imagine calling a friend in England, Germany, Australia or Hong Kong and chatting for free. Legally. No black boxes, hacking or cracking involved.
If you have a reasonably well-equipped multimedia computer, you can do it with a $49 program that may well revolutionize how people use the Internet.
Internet Phone, from an Israeli company called VocalTec Inc., does exactly what its name implies. It turns your PC into a telephone that uses the Net as a long-distance carrier to transmit your voice in real time to anyone equipped with the same software -- and transmit their voices to you.
The amazing thing is that Internet Phone worked the first time I tried it. I couldn't hear a pin drop at the other end of the line, but I spent a couple of days chatting quite understandably with equally amazed people around the world who had downloaded trial versions of the Windows program from the Internet server at VocalTec's American headquarters in Northvale, N.J.
"We intend to bring literally millions of users onto the Internet," said John Romano, VocalTec's vice president for marketing and director of North American operations. "For a long time people have been talking about the convergence of telecommunications, computers and cable. This is an example of that convergence, although it may be in a different direction than people expected."
This particular convergence worries not only traditional long-distance carriers, but also many longtime denizens of the Net. They fear the Internet will be brought to its knees by the millions of users who have already logged on in the last two years and by a new generation of software that passes vast quantities of graphics, video and voice data across a system that was designed for simple text messages.
Mr. Romano insists that Internet Phone won't bring down the system because VocalTec's proprietary algorithms compress users' voices into small data packets that can easily be handled. Whether he's right remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Internet Phone is likely to attract thousands of users over the next few months.
A few caveats. While chatting with Internet Phone doesn't cost Net users any more than they're paying for their current connections, it's not exactly free. If you're not connected to the Net now and wouldn't bother to connect otherwise, Internet Phone isn't necessarily a good reason to do it.
The program requires capable hardware: a 486DX/33 computer running Microsoft Windows, a sound board, a microphone and a headphone or speakers. Microphones are available in most computer stores, but if you're serious about this, visit Radio Shack or a stereo dealer and get a decent one. Internet Phone brings out the worst in cheap microphones.
Unless you're using a networked office computer with a direct connection to the Internet, you'll need a 14,400-baud modem to communicate. You'll also need a SLIP or PPP account with a local Internet provider and Windows Socket software to allow you to make the connection. ClarkNet, the local provider I use, charges $33 a month, which entitles me to five hours of connect time a day. Other providers have different price structures.
If you've already established an Internet connection using Microsoft Windows, installing Internet Phone is a no-brainer and using it costs virtually nothing. When the program pops up, it asks for some basic data, including your name, nickname or handle, e-mail address and any other information you might want to give prospective callers.
The program uses directory services provided by Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a long-standing CB-like system that lets Internet users communicate interactively via the keyboard. You'll be prompted to choose the closest IRC server from a list that VocalTec provides, at which point Internet Phone logs you in and displays a list of everyone who's signed on.
To call someone, just click on his or her name. A friendly graphical interface shows your partner's computer as a door on the screen, and an animated hand knocks while the "phone" is ringing. When the connection is made, you can talk. If someone else is talking to your party, you'll get a "busy" signal.
However, this isn't exactly like picking up the phone and dialing Aunt Rhoda, because Aunt Rhoda has to be logged on at the same time, with the same software. It requires prearrangement, or else a knowledge of when she will be there.
While the voice quality is surprisingly good, Internet Phone works more like ham radio than the telephone. It's not easy for both parties to talk at once, and there's a little gap as your software and the Internet process each side of the conversation. But it's not hard to get used to, considering the price.
Underlying all this is some very sophisticated programming from a company that has specialized in audio chat and voice mail for local area networks. Porting this technology to the Internet wasn't easy.
Unlike phone lines, which are designed to carry continuous streams of voice data, the Internet is packet-switched. That means whatever you're transmitting is broken down into little packets of digital ones and zeros, each of which has the recipient's electronic address attached.
Depending on traffic, the network may route each packet differently. When the packets all reach their destination, software on the receiver's side reassembles them, figures out if anything is missing and calls for a retransmission if necessary. If you're transferring e-mail, graphics or even pre-recorded audio files, this usually isn't a problem -- the worst effect is a slight delay. But you can't have this going on while you're trying to process real-time conversations.
Internet Phone attacks the problem from two directions. First it compresses your voice so that each second of conversation requires only 800 bytes of data. This is an extraordinary compression ratio. Second, the program compensates for missing packets by figuring out what they should contain. VocalTec officials claim that up to 20 percent of the packets in a transmission can be missing before you'll notice a degradation of voice quality.
If you're on the Net, you can download an evaluation copy of Internet Phone which limits you to 60 seconds of actual conversation per session. If you like it, you can register your copy and get the unencumbered version for $49 through March 31 or $99 after that.
The demonstration version is available on the Worldwide Web at http://www.vocaltec.com or by anonymous FTP from ftp.vocaltec.com. For information, contact VocalTec Inc., 157 Veterans Drive, Northvale, N.J. 07647, (201) 768-9400.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.