PC Phone Home
by Ken Cotton
Let's get one thing straight: I am NOT a writer. So why I am writing this here right now? A few reasons, I guess.
(1) At the coming meeting I'm hopefully going to be showing everyone how to get going with Internet telephony and get the most out of it with some hardware designed to improve the quality and convenience and I need to start getting my ideas on paper or I won't be ready.
(2) We all have learned some things throughout our computing lives in Japan that we really ought to be sharing with more people and our newsgroups and the newsletter are the best way. The monthly meetings are nice, but not everyone can attend and there is just so little time for everyone to share what they've learned, so the newsgroups and the newsletter are the way to go.
(3) President Pat Hughes will be leaving us soon and I haven't seen anyone begging to take his job so I may end up doing it. Whoever is in that position is supposed to write a monthly column called Prez Sez. Pat told me last time we met that it was tough going in the beginning, but having to write something monthly forced him to take better notes and stay organized. I could sure use the discipline.
(4) Finally. I saw a message two days ago from our publisher, Paul, saying the staff was lacking material for the newsletter and the deadline for submissions had passed so they were thinking of making it 4 pages shorter this month. That would be a shame and might set a precedent.
So here I am. This makes it about my 5th time to write for the AJ. Not always a lot of fun when I get to doing it, as I'm usually late, but nice when it's done. Often times someone will ask me a question about something I've talked about and I can just point them to the newsletter.
I could get going about the neat batteries I've found for my digital camera that last forever or the latest dialup ISDN router that is out there with 3 analog ports and Caller ID, but I'd better get on with the show and maybe get to that later or never. Now would be a good time for me to give this next meeting a title and maybe give our editor a better title for this article than Ken's Kafe or Ken's Korner. How about PC Phone Home? Okay that's it!
I've always liked phones and hated phone bills, so over 3 years ago when I heard about Vocaltec's Internet Phone software I downloaded it and tried to test it with a friend living in Taiwan. It was exciting the first time I heard his voice come out of my PC speakers. It didn't matter that it seemed to be taking around 30 seconds to get from his mouth to my ears. I knew that history was in the making and like everything else it would get better.
I didn't "play" much with IP telephony again for about a year and a half. In November 1996, I read about a company called Net2Phone that had software that let you call from your PC to a regular phone via their gateway somewhere in the US. Calls to the states were 10-15 cents per minute depending on the time of day and 800 numbers (toll free in the US) were free for 20 minutes.
I tried calling my father and a friend in the states as they both have 800 numbers. I could hear them okay, but they would hang up on me after a few seconds since they couldn't hear me. That didn't deter me from signing up for $25 of prepaid credit for phone calls. I tried calling a few more numbers, but had the same problem. Oh well, it was cool. I just finally got around to apologizing to these people for the hang-ups. Wonder what they thought at the time.
So I just forgot about my $24.XX credit until sometime last summer when for some reason I decided it was time to try it again. I think I wanted to call Guam to make some hotel reservations for a trip I was about to make. Since I was flying on a free Northwest ticket it would have seemed a shame to spend 10 bucks on phone calls making reservations. I checked the rates for 0061 and my callback service and although I can't remember what they were they must have been high enough for me to go look up the Net2Phone rate to Guam. Again I can't remember what it was, but now they charge 16 cents per minute, so that may have been the case then. I said "what the heck, if they can't hear me I can always call them back with my callback."
I installed the latest version of the Net2Phone software right over the older one and got the latest drivers for my sound card, as that is what they were recommending. I'll probably mention this again later, but with IP telephony using things like Net2Phone, Vocaltec's Internet Phone and even Microsoft's NetMeeting (PC to PC) you really want to be using the latest drivers for your card as it all matters. If your card or drivers are too old you may be limited to a half-duplex conversation where only one party can talk at once. Not fun. Actually, it sucks! Kind of like talking on a CB radio. Not the kind of thing hotels would like you to use when you are making reservations.
Boy was I surprised. Things had gotten much better. Not perfect, but good enough! Good enough for me to make my Guam hotel reservations, good enough for me to want to write about it in the newsletter last August and good enough for me to start using it most of the time instead of a callback service! Finally after all these years of dumping money into computer hardware and software and NTT bills, I'd found something that was actually going to be saving me money. Not only has it done that, but also it has changed the way I think about picking up the phone to make overseas calls. I do it without even thinking. And my family has never been closer.
That's right, I said "picking up the phone." I used to have to start the Net2Phone program and dial using a keyboard or mouse. No more. I dial from a regular phone. I would have to talk into a mic and listen through my speakers. No more. I talk through a regular telephone handset. Though I did pick up a PC headset for my notebook computer which I wished I'd done a long time ago to get rid of the feedback that people told me they used to hear.
Things continue to get better, thanks in part to improvements in the Net2Phone software, which is up to version 8.67, but also thanks to a company in San Francisco called Quicknet Technologies, Inc. (http://www.quicknet.net) and their $169 product called Internet PhoneJACK. I read about it last year in the email newsletter of Phonezone.com (http://www.phonezone.com) and bought two directly from the company at their booth at the Internet World show in Los Angeles in March. I was sold. I had read the reviews and knew what it did. I couldn't wait to get it home and get it installed. Hey, it had been a 1997 Product of the Year in one of my favorite magazines, Computer Telephony Magazine.
So what does it do? Well a few things. I'm running out of time right now so if you don't catch the demo, I'm sure you'll be hearing me talk about this product more in future articles. You can also check out the company's web site and my home page (http://www.kencotton.com) where I'll be uploading my notes as it should save me from repeating myself so much. I'd really get the word out about just how good this stuff is. It's not for everybody, but it may be for you.
Basically, it's a plug-n-play ISA card that you plug into an available slot in your PC. You can use it instead of a sound card, but I recommend that you keep your sound card so you don't have to stop your music CDs or RealAudio every time you go to make a phone call. PhoneJACK has a DSP (digital signal processor) on board to do the compression and echo-cancellation for Internet phone conversations. It does a much better job than software and frees up your system resources. The quality of some of my calls to the US is so good that many people can't believe I'm calling via the Net, even the people at Net2Phone when I call them to buy more credits. "Latency" or delay is a bigger issue than bandwidth and any way I can reduce shy of buying my own leased line to the states is worth looking in to.
I could justify the price of the card by the quality improvements alone, but I don't have to. It's a killer product. In addition to the quality it adds convenience. On the back of the card you have 3 different ways to make your connection. There is (1) an RJ11 jack where you can plug in an analog phone, (2) a telephone handset jack for a phone handset or a headset like those telemarketing people wear and (3) miniplug jacks for mic/speaker or PC headset. Lots of choices here.
I have chosen to use a regular phone as it also allows me to do the dialing. But I did order a nice Plantronic's headset the other day and when it arrives I will plug that in, too. You aren't limited to one as the PhoneJACK software gives you the choice of keeping an 'Action Bar' on your screen that has a pulldown menu to let you choose your preferred way off talking/listening.
Real sharp. Anything that keeps me from reaching behind my computer is great! Why don't they put sound card jacks on the front of a machine anyway?
The PhoneJACK software also allows you to choose which Internet phone applications you would like to use the PhoneJACK with. Right now it supports Net2Phone, Internet Phone and NetMeeting. I leave it set to Net2Phone and when I pick up the handset of my phone Net2Phone will start up and I can dial away. I have some presets set for the people I call the most and just dial the others. I rarely bother to look at the screen when I am making calls. One reason is that the machine is not on the desk in front of me. Another is that there is no need to. I just want to make a phone call.
I have to be honest and say I still have a lot to learn, especially if I'm going to be showing others at the meeting. The switchboard software is something I've only spent a few minutes with. But like a VCR with a fancy remote control, there are a lot of features that you could use, but you just have to sit down and learn them. I'm already so pleased with this product that everything else from here on in is a bonus and that's kind of nice.
Last month, due to the popular demand, we showed Net2Phone on Pat Hughes' notebook computer. This time I should be bringing in a small notebook sized desktop PC that I'm putting together for demo purposes. I just picked it up yesterday. The DHL guy just delivered the Internet PhoneJACK I ordered. I bought one more as I didn't want to pull the one out of my main machine, even for a day, as I make international calls with this setup daily.
Let's see if we can beat the quality we had with Pat's machine. I was impressed, as I had never tried it on my notebook. I have my fingers crossed. There is a lot that could go wrong from the projector to our phone line there.
As usual I'd like to go on and talk about other things, like the latest product by Quicknet called Internet LineJACK. It lets you dial into your home from outside and then use your computer to make phone calls over the Internet with your own gateway and a lot more. But since I didn't get one in time for the demo and I'm running out of time here, I'll have to save that for later.
If you get tired of hearing me talk about this stuff, just tell me to shut up. I've gotten excited about products before, but never quite like this. I guess that fact that it saves me a lot of money is a big part of it. It's also changed the way I think about making international phone calls.
The world just got a little smaller.
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