Review for Internet Research:
This review appeared in the July 1997 issue of Internet Research: Volume 7, Number 4, p 352-354
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
Karin Geiselhart, PhD student, University of Canberra, Australia
return to KG's home page