Calling all PCs -- voice over Net

Free instant message services offer real-time chat with a personal address like e-mail has. ICQ and Yahoo Messenger currently also offer voice, and AOL Instant Messenger will have it in version 3.5, which is now in beta. On Wednesday, Excite@Home announced its voice chat will be integrated into all Excite.com chat rooms.

While it's clear that real-time voice is the next step for chat, talking via instant messaging services is more like using a walky-talky than a phone. You have to press one button to talk and another to listen.

Quality issues also hurt voice chat. Carlos Avendaro uses chat rooms from HearMe, a provider of voice and text chat software for Websites. He's heard noticeable delays in the sound. "I looked at my watch and counted three seconds," he says.

"Currently there are about 9 million people -- or 14 per cent of Web users -- using voice chat," says Larry Gerbrandt of Paul Kagan Associates. Most of those people are early adopters like students and gamers, who have dedicated Internet connections and the necessary equipment and know-how to get their PC talking.

Unlike voice chat, phone calls made over the PC offer two-way voice exchange, but quality and latency remain an issue.

Calls made over the Internet using services like Net2Phone do save money on long distance charges, however. Net2Phone charges only 1 US cent a minute to use its service. For many people, though, long distance charges aren't that much more, compared to the hassle of learning new technologies.

With rates for conventional phone services as low as 5 cents a minute in the US, that's not enough of an incentive, says Bart Bartolozzi, director of strategic business development at Net2Phone. He expects it will be other services will attract users.

PC phone calls still have quality issues, but so do other telephony devices. If you've ever used a mobile phone, you've probably experienced service interruptions and poor connections. But using a mobile phone is easy and affords mobility, something tethered phones do not. Voice calls over the Web require new skills and equipment.

"When you look at the enabling technologies for live voice, most consumers have speakers, many have a microphone, but how you get them to work is another thing," says Seamus McAteer, director of Web Technology Strategies at Jupiter Research.

To get you started, companies like Visitalk provide headsets with their free software and a single number and voice mailbox for both regular and PC phone calls.

Beyond equipment barriers, there's the issue of phone numbers. PCs don't have phone numbers, so you can't call a PC. "For now, you can call a phone from a PC but not a PC from a phone," says Michael O'Donnell, president and chief operating officer of Visitalk, which provides users with a voice mailbox to receive incoming calls. "You need to be able to do that."