Push-to-talk could be the biggest upgrade to mobile phones since wireless service became affordable a decade ago.
With push-to-talk, also known as PTT, callers organize a group of co-workers or friends. By pushing a button on your phone, everyone in the group can hear you simultaneously and immediately without having to hit the green "answer" button.
On Aug. 18, Verizon Wireless became the first mass-market wireless carrier to offer PTT; the only previous PTT provider was Nextel, which aims mostly at business users.
Three of the four other national wireless carriers promise PTT soon: Sprint PCS by the end of this year, Cingular Wireless early next year and AT&T; Wireless by the middle of next year. Only T-Mobile, for now, is refusing to join the PTT parade.
PTT can be a little hard to grasp at first. You can think of PTT as making mobile phones into walkie-talkies, where everyone on the same frequency hears each other and only one person can talk at a time.
I think of PTT as instant messaging for voice, in the same way regular phone calls are the equivalent of electronic mail.
E-mail is usually a one-to-one form of communication, and you don't know if the person on the other end will be there when you hit the send button. Phone calls are also one-to-one, and you don't know in advance whether the other person is available.
Instant messaging, or IM, shows a list of your online buddies and indicates which are signed on. You can then start IMing one buddy or set up a chat group. With the new PTT service from Verizon Wireless (www.verizonwireless.com), an icon on the phone's screen indicates which of your PTT contacts have their phones turned on, and you can launch one-to-one or group conversations.
Not that PTT is going to change the world overnight; it's too expensive. Verizon Wireless is aiming PTT at business users who can afford to pay an extra $20 a month. And there's only one model of phone compatible with Verizon Wireless PTT: the Motorola V60p, at $149 with a two-year contract for new customers or a two-year contract extension for current subscribers.
But there's no reason not to believe PTT monthly fees will come down, while many - and eventually perhaps all - mobile phones will be PTT-ready.
Here's how PTT works with Verizon Wireless:
Motorola's V60p is a standard ultra-compact flip phone; the only visible difference is a small PTT button. When you push the button, you see the list of your PTT contacts. Using up and down arrow keys, you highlight the individual or group you want to call. Then you push and hold the PTT button, wait about two seconds for a beep that confirms the connection, and start talking.
Everyone in your group hears a notification beep and then your voice. If the V60p is set in speakerphone mode - recommended for PTT communication - you'll be heard clearly even if the phone is clipped to a belt or purse strap.
When you finish talking and remove your finger from the PTT button, everyone else hears a beep. The next person to press his or her PTT button gets to respond.
Setting up contacts
Setting up PTT contacts is handled online, through a password-protected Web page (www.vzwpushtotalk.com). You go to the site and enter the phone numbers of people you know have PTT phones, then organize them into groups.
You could set up groups for relatives, for friends, a third for one project at work and a fourth for another project. A person could appear in several groups. Verizon Wireless allows a maximum of 150 PTT contacts in 50 groups, with each group holding up to 10 contacts.
However, you can participate in only one person-to-person or group conversation at a time. If others try to make a PTT connection while you're talking, their phones show you as busy.
I tested PTT with two colleagues at other newspapers. The three of us, all using Motorola V60p phones borrowed from Verizon Wireless, conducted three group discussions on three days.
After adjusting to the two-second pause required before starting to talk, and the need to wait for the other person to finish before responding, I found it easy to launch and participate in group PTT discussions.
Knowing who's on
We did encounter glitches; the Web site for setting up PTT contacts was down for a few hours one day, and one of our chat sessions got cut off twice. But these are most likely rough edges common to new wireless services that get resolved quickly.
I particularly enjoyed knowing in advance if my colleagues had their phones on or off, a feature technically called "presence." I hope Verizon Wireless makes presence into a separate feature; I'd gladly pay several extra dollars a month to know if the people in my phone's address book are available to receive calls.
Nextel's (www.nextel.com) works much the same way, although its phones don't tell you whether contacts are available and the response time is quicker - about one second instead of two.
Under the brand name Direct Connect, Nextel's PTT is widely used by workers who spend most of their time in the field, such as construction crews, firefighters and appliance repairers.
A carpenter on a big job site can hit the PTT button to ask, "Who has more 16-penny nails?" Seven other carpenters would hear the message, and the one with the most extra nails could reply.
Nextel is relatively small, with 11.7 million subscribers, and has never been particularly successful at selling its service to consumers - in part because of its rates.
Verizon Wireless is the largest wireless carrier in the nation, with 34.6 million customers and more skill at marketing new services. For now, it is aiming PTT at businesses willing to pay premium prices.
The company charges $20 a month on top of existing rates; the least expensive PTT plan is $59.99 a month and, except for PTT, is identical to the regular $39.99 plan providing 400 anytime minutes along with unlimited nights and weekends.
Anyone signing up for PTT from Verizon Wireless before the end of this year gets unlimited one-to-one and group PTT calling for as long as he or she maintains the account; regular phone calls are charged the same as with non-PTT phones.
After Jan. 1, customers signing up for PTT will still get unlimited one-to-one calls, but group PTT calls will cost the originator 15 cents per person contacted. In other words, a group call you start with three other people would cost 45 cents a minute; the people on the other end still pay nothing.
I'm not sure if PTT is a feature I'd use regularly, and I don't know how fast my friends or co-workers will acquire PTT-ready phones. What's more, it's likely to be at least several years before PTT works between different wireless carriers.
But I'm also convinced that PTT isn't just for business; I can easily see PTT becoming a popular way for people to reach out to family and friends.