Internet phones are software products which can run on desktop PCs. They offer various types of communication over an internal network or the Internet itself. Of course, the obvious attraction of this type of product is its potential to save money on phone calls ? you pay nothing extra on top of the price for your Internet connection.
For users who have a permanent (leased line) connection to the Internet, there is no marginal cost at all; and in some countries, where there is no charge for local phone calls, even dial-up users share this benefit.
However, the innovative features of some Internet telephony products can offer more benefits than just cost savings. First, the facilities provided can usually be operated on a conferencing basis ? to more than two parties ? although the users we spoke to normally only work on a two-party basis.
Many Internet telephones now offer a video telephone capability ? a video camera and interface hardware are also needed ? but for many people this will be the easiest route to video telephony. Another common feature is text-based chat. Although this may seem pointless when you have audio, it uses much less bandwidth. This means you won?t suffer the same degradation when Internet traffic is heavy.
One of the more interesting innovations is whiteboarding ? the facility for each user taking part in a call to see the same view of a drawing canvas. Both can draw on the canvas (using the tools usually found in a ?paint? program), and both can see the result. Clearly, this has the potential to enhance audio communication in many fields of work.
But the most exciting feature is probably application sharing, found in Microsoft?s Netmeeting. This allows users to see and operate the same application, such as a spreadsheet or word processor, and work on a document together.
Microsoft is confident of the potential of this feature for collaborative work, such as lawyers negotiating a contract. One clever touch is that only one party needs to own a copy of the application being shared (but then, clearly, the other party can?t work on the document on their own).
To use an Internet telephone, you need a PC with audio equipment and Internet connectivity. In the past, installing and tuning these applications has been difficult, but suppliers are now trying to automate the procedure using wizards.
One of the problems with Internet telephones is that you need to know in advance when the called party will be available. For people with permanent leased line connections, this isn?t such a problem, but the typical dial-up user will not normally be online 24 hours a day. So, usually, you have to pre-arrange calls, perhaps by using a normal phone or by working to a regular schedule ? like radio amateurs.
Currently, many of the products are based on proprietary protocols ? standards for Internet telephony are only just being adopted (Microsoft?s Netmeeting 2.0, when released, will follow H.323 for audio and video-conferencing, and T.120 for data conferencing). But for now, you will usually only be able to communicate with other people who are using the same product.
Subject: Seatronics Marine
Activities: supplies specialist electronic and computer equipment for boats
Installation: Vocaltec Internet Phone
Seatronics Marine, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, supplies specialist electronic and computer equipment for boats. Chief executive Roger Kaplan has a Vocaltec Internet Phone for business and personal use.
Although Internet Phone saves Kaplan money ? he pays no local phone charge to his ISP, and only $57 a month for Internet connectivity ? the major benefit is in the range of people that he meets.
?I use Vocaltec for networking, developing clients ? I?ve made several new business contacts through it, and that?s without pursuing it aggressively,? says Kaplan. ?As far as meeting people around the world is concerned, there?s nothing like it ? it?s a very powerful tool.?
Internet Phone is also invaluable for the technical side of Kaplan?s business. ?I have a friend in California that I talk to using Internet Phone. We trade computer ideas.?
Kaplan also uses the Internet Phone to discuss stock market investments: ?I play the stock market ? the company has its own private worldwide stock trading channels. Staff can get together and discuss what to buy and sell.? In this way, Kaplan can receive up-to-the-minute advice from around the world.
Kaplan agrees that Internet telephony products aren?t always reliable, but is still a fan of Internet Phone. ?I?ve tested every one of these client packages; they all work some of the time, but the Vocaltec works all the time. The quality is exceptional ? the limiting factor is the Internet itself and the load on the routers.?
Subject: Text 100
Activities: public relations agency
Installation: Microsoft Netmeeting
Robert Grupe is online communications manager at public relations agency Text 100. He finds that Microsoft Netmeeting is revolutionising the way he works.
Surprisingly, though, Grupe does not use the telephony feature. ?I?ve used the audio successfully, connecting across the Atlantic. But the audio is too dependent on the type of access and the client machine ? the sound quality isn?t adequate if the link?s too slow. Because of these performance issues, we usually make a normal phone call and just use Netmeeting for application sharing.?
It?s the application sharing that is such a boon to Text 100. With this feature, both Grupe and a client can view materials such as Word documents and Powerpoint presentations when discussing a project together.
?Netmeeting saves time. The facility to see graphics and text is extremely valuable. We can share how it looks and is presented,? says Grupe.
Netmeeting cuts out a lot of to-ing and fro-ing: ?The client and I can write press releases together, online. We can quickly work out the main points.? Text 100 has offices around the world, and so application sharing also has many uses internally ? between different offices.
In addition, the product has video facilities, although Grupe isn?t so keen on this feature. ?For video, you need a video camera, the quality can be a bit choppy and the frame refresh is slow. I have used it, and it does add a degree of personality to the conversation because you can say hello to someone.?
Grupe has also found that running video affects the application sharing performance. ?After saying hello, I usually turn off the video to conserve bandwidth and get more performance and throughput.?
Subject: Radiant House Europe
Activities: import/export agency
Installation: Vocaltec Internet Phone
Dennis Miniero is executive vice president at Radiant House Europe, an import/ export agency based in New York State but with partners in England and Hong Kong. Miniero uses Vocaltec Internet Phone first and foremost to save money: ?I use Internet Phone as a normal business phone, and save about $1,200 each month.?
However, like other users of Internet telephony products, Miniero acknowledges that things aren?t always perfect. ?The audio quality is fine for our purposes, but there are good days and bad days, depending on the Internet.
?I?ve been using the Internet for about eight years; in the early days I used to call it ?My Internet?. But now everyone is connected, so at certain times it can be unbearable.?
The three partners use normal phone lines for Internet connectivity. ?We all use 28.8 or 33.6 modems, so the quality does get flaky sometimes, but for the price it?s terrific,? says Miniero.
With free local calls, Miniero can leave his Internet Phone on 24 hours a day, making it easy for his partners to contact him without pre-arranging times. ?But they know there are certain times when I am in the office,? he says.
Unfortunately, Miniero?s colleagues don?t have the same luxury. As one explains: ?Phone calls in Hong Kong are very expensive. So instead we can send an email message saying ?I?ll talk to you tomorrow at a particular time?.?
Radiant House Europe also uses the video capabilities of Internet Phone. ?I can hold up an object or picture to the camera, for example, so that everyone can see what I am talking about. This means that I don?t need to explain everything because it is obvious,? says Miniero. ?Internet Phone is a real business tool for us.?
Internet Telephony lessons:
1 Internet telephony products can and do work; they deliver real business benefits ? if you?re prepared to accept their limitations.
2 They require a degree of commitment and enthusiasm on the part of users; it is still too early for them to gain widespread acceptance.
3 Because of the issue of standards and knowing when someone will be online, the main benefits accrue from regular, scheduled contact between a limited number of people. 4 When used just for audio, Internet telephones will do little for most people other than perhaps save some money. But in the future, application sharing, in particular, could fundamentally change the way some businesses work, and significantly speed up many business processes.
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