Business has yet to log on to the Net's telephone potential.
Ever since Israeli engineers discovered that the Internet could be used to transmit voice signals, it has been possible to make long distance (including international) phone calls at a tiny cost - typically the price of a local call. Admittedly there are drawbacks. Both parties have to be sitting at their personal computers, sound quality is poor, users have to speak into a microphone and the speaker's voice comes booming out of computer loudspeakers - hardly appropriate for private calls or for a busy office. But has the technology a future, particularly in business?
So far, commercial users seem unexcited. Barclays Bank (no slouch when it comes to exploiting IT) has 'plenty of more pressing areas to pursue', according to corporate IT spokesman Davis Scott. Cost savings are important, Scott agrees, but Internet telephony is really not regarded as a likely source. Nor does British Telecommunications appear to be alarmed. While over at OFTEL, 'We're merely monitoring the situation,' says spokesperson Catherine Guiver.
Peter Berrie, BT's Internet services manager, argues that Internet telephony 'is an extremely inefficient way of using expensive bandwidth'. Because an Internet service provider and a cut-price telephone call reseller are charged exactly the same amount to lease a long-distance cable, this inefficiency is crucial. With Internet telephony, Berrie points out, technical factors prevent bandwidth utilisation exceeding 61%. Ultimately, he claims, the market will ensure price equality.
However, software (and hardware) companies are investing heavily in the idea. So far over a dozen companies - including IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Netscape - have launched Internet telephony software programs, generally as part of a Net browser program. 'Businesses haven't yet woken up to the potential of Internet telephony,' argues Intel's Internet communications manager Steve Roberts. 'They're thinking of it as a substitute for the office telephone, not as an additional channel of communication.'
Companies will begin using Internet telephony for conferencing, Roberts predicts, then as an extension to their Web sites. 'A company's Web site could have an icon that customers click on in order to talk to a sales agent about a product they are interested in, for instance - and close the deal there and then.' As is usual these days, Intel's Internet telephony program is available free, and can be downloaded from the company's Web site.
Microsoft is offering free Internet telephony software as part of its much-hyped Web browser Explorer. Its UK director of desktop and Internet applications, Andrew Lees, emphasises the point that Internet telephone calls don't have to be one-to-one, nor does communication have to be restricted to voice. 'We're expecting businesses to start to use Internet telephony as a way of sharing and discussing business data held on people's personal computers.'
Lees points to a utility called NetMeeting (bundled with Explorer) which allows users to hold 'virtual meetings' using Internet telephony. Voice communication is at present only one-to-one, although up to six people can type in comments and draw diagrams on a shared 'whiteboard' which appears on all six computers simultaneously.
'Ultimately every computer on the planet will be on the Internet,'says Lees. 'Internet telephony will not just be cheaper, it will be more convenient.'
Yet another company, Netex, is about to launch an Internet telephone handset, with circuitry especially tuned for digitised sound and computer soundcards. 'Once businesses have caught on to the potential, we see a big future for Internet telephony,' insists its development manager, Eddie Crawford. If he's correct, it will not be the first time businesses have been wrong-footed by the Internet's extraordinary growth. Internet telephony may have its limitations, but businesses might be wise not to hang up on it just yet.