Review for Internet Research:
This review appeared in the July 1997 issue of Internet Research: Volume 7, Number 4, p 352-354

The Internet Telephone Toolkit

Pulver, Jeff (1996), John Wiley and Sons Inc, New York, 201 pp., ISBN 0-471-16352-X, $29.95 USA

David Lyon has called the nexus between computers and telecommunications a 'marriage of convergence.' If correct, then one of the long-awaited progeny is surely cheaper long distance telephone calls. Jeff Pulver reviews many of the products which make such savings possible now, without waiting for telecommunications policy and pricing to catch up with the technology. In The Internet Telephone Toolkit, he goes through the ins and outs of using the Internet as a low cost telephone connection.

In simple terms, your voice is turned into digital packets for transmission over the Internet, and reassembled at the other end. All the normal transmission problems of packet loss apply, but generally are quite surmountable with normal connections.

Pulver has been described as 'the preeminent authority on Internet telephony'. He admits to a personal enthusiasm bordering on the evangelical. However, his reasoning and technical knowledge are very down to earth. Internet telephony has developed way beyond the experimental stage, and Pulver has been in on it from the start. This makes him extremely well placed to describe and comment on the surprising number of products on offer.

Using the Internet for voice connections is legal, inexpensive, and not beyond the skills of the average computer buff. Those who already have an Internet connection only require a microphone and appropriate software to get started. For those without a microphone, some software offers a text-based option.

The Toolkit delivers what it promises, with a clear layout that facilitates browsing. The general concepts and principles are explained, followed by chapters discussing the most popular software products in more detail. There are FAQs, or Frequently Asked Questions, along with screen dumps and copies of dialog boxes. The book comes with a CD ROM offering samples of many of the different products, so that the reader can assess for themselves. Most of these products also have Web sites for the latest versions, and at least one can be downloaded for free. As with most forms of software, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from, each with its own rich learning curve.

Although the extension of the Internet to include voice may now seem logical, inevitable, and perhaps even overdue, this particular form of convergence has created some distress in the telecommunications industry. The concept of 'anywhere, anytime' communications can also be thought of as allowing conversations with anyone, almost without any cost.

Pulver seems to relish throwing down the gauntlet to the big telcos. He has a background in ham radio, and sees the full potential for Internet telephony from a similar open perspective. He is one of the initiators of Free World Dial-Up, a 'grassroots, completely global, noncommercial venture that extended the power of Internet telephone to ordinary people through local telephone lines.' The difference here is the possibility of speaking to people anywhere in the world, even if the other person is not connected to a computer. The intent is to 'prove to the world that it can be done', and make these virtually free phone calls available to ordinary people, rather than just the 'technical elite.' Details on how to join this project are provided, and he calls for volunteer servers to extend the experiment.

Such an project clearly extends the reach of global communications, as the number of people with telephones far exceeds those with full Internet access. As access expands, control becomes more difficult. Imagine the voices of dissidents, writers and communities providing unfiltered news and views, helping to fulfil the promise of the Global Information Society.

Even without radical dreaming, the present and future applications of Internet telephony are exciting. Distance learning is one, which will undoubtedly complement the web-based courses many universities are now offering. Computer conferencing, including video conferencing, for small and medium sized enterprises is another area for expansion, especially with the voice mail option some packages offer. A facility called Full Duplex is available on some of the packages, allowing two people to speak at once, rather than take turns. This brings Internet telephony closer to our usual expectations for voice exchanges. Compatibility of software and time lags (electrons will not be rushed) still present problems, but the field is advancing rapidly.

Internet telephony can be used in a similar way to Internet Relay Chat software, allowing hook-up to a server with potentially thousands of willing chatterboxes. Inevitably, at least one marriage has been attributed to this random confluence of voices. The possibilities for on-line dating services are enormous. One product even offers Voice Fonts, which let you alter your voice. You can disguise your gender, or perhaps add an echo or robotic twang. Life imitates simulation.

An extensive appendix shows the full extent of the possible applications, with lists of contacts and industry resources and vendors, including a wide range of other audio and multimedia products. Now that the days of desk-top video production have arrived, just about any combination of voice/audio/video/animation/data is within reach.

Given the growing importance and complexity of various forms of data transmission and manipulation, it is interesting to reflect on the fundamental value and importance we still place on the simple human voice. Already, there are signs of stratified services emerging on the Internet, with ordinary customers shunted through to an automated response menu. Priority clients, on the other hand, will get luxury treatment and a live voice (much dearer).

The highest level executives, it is said, only talk. Their spontaneous utterings are seldom captured verbatim, yet often carry the weight of a decree. And as anyone who has seen A Fish Called Wanda will recall, voices have enormous sensual power. The many telephone help line services provide more than information and referrals - they offer emotional support and understanding and real responsivity. These are all features not easily simulated.

In conclusion, beyond its many practicalities or suggestions for cost-savings, Jeff Pulver's Internet Telephone Toolkit is a contribution to global communications on a human scale.

Karin Geiselhart, PhD student, University of Canberra, Australia

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