The Shopping Club

Freedom’s Just Another Word …

Good morning, Andrew.

Last April, I wrote an article in this magazine purporting to prove that the proliferation of free goodies on the Web couldn’t last. Now, 11 months later, it appears that you can chalk one up for the Web. At any rate, I was once called the sort of person who ignores a $10 bill lying on the sidewalk since, in theory, there aren’t $10 bills on the sidewalk. So I’m trying to change. As long as the Great Internet Giveaway continues, I intend to consume without further word of complaint.

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Today we’re reviewing the various online services that purport to offer free long-distance phone calls over the Internet. Of course, this promise isn’t new. I knew people in the early ‘90s who tried to use Internet phones and found them hopelessly clumsy. But the latest crop of companies are apparently well funded and claim to be competitive now with ordinary long-distance service. One of the leaders, PhoneFree.com, is even running TV ads of a guy burning his phone bills.

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Here’s how PhoneFree works. You go to www.phonefree.com and download a small program onto your computer. It takes just a few minutes. You must also buy a microphone for your computer. For $25 I bought a fancy headset combining earphones and a microphone. The program asks you a few questions (name, etc.) and asks you to speak into the microphone to calibrate its sensitivity.

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Next, you convince your friends and family to install the same software. Then you can go to PhoneFree’s Web site and click on their names (if they’re online when you are) and voilà , you are connected. (If they’re not online, you can leave them a voicemail message.) All it takes is 25 bucks and half an hour and the rest is free.

Last night we tried this out, Andrew, and I’m curious to hear what you thought of the sound quality. On my end, the conversation was halting and tinny, and hopelessly garbled whenever we both spoke at once. Functionally, it reminded me of when I embarrass myself by dusting off my high-school Spanish: I can get across basic information–barely–but conversation is out of the question. On the other hand, if you were living in Borneo rather than New York City, I think this might be a decent way to keep in touch. We’d just have to stop interrupting each other.

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We also tried some of the competing free long-distance services, and again, I was underwhelmed. BeeCall works just like PhoneFree–except that you must press a “Talk” button before you speak, and the other person cannot talk back when you’re talking. It’s just like a CB radio–which is unbelievably frustrating–though the sound quality is better than PhoneFree.

Yahoo’s instant-messaging service also has a voice chat function, which allows you to talk as you type in real time, which struck me as completely silly. Plus, Yahoo’s sound quality seemed the worst of the three on my end.

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In sum, I spent $25 and half an hour, and I saved less than a dollar talking to you for around 15 minutes. Plus, around 10 of those 15 minutes were spent screaming “What!” at each other. Much as it hurts me to say, I don’t think the local telco monopoly should feel threatened, though I’m curious to hear what the sound quality was like on your end.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of useful free communication options on the Web–free faxes, free ISPs, free voicemail, a robot that reads you your e-mail, etc.–and I look forward to talking about them with you this week.

Best,

Bruce

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