Companies Make Software to Use Internet for Voice Conversations AP Graphic INTERNET TELEPHONE

By EVAN RAMSTAD AP Business Writer NEW YORK (AP) --

Richard Haus has a favorite new trick with his home computer.

He scans a list of people on the screen, picks someone farthest from his San Francisco-area home and clicks on the name. Suddenly, a voice comes through his speakers and they begin to talk.

``I've had a pretty clear connection to Italy,'' Haus said. ``I've talked to people in the Netherlands and lots of different places.''

The beauty is, the conversations don't show up on his long distance bill. Haus is among the first to use the Internet, the global network of computer networks, for phone-like conversations. He and the people he talks to each have bought a software program that turns a voice into digital data and then back at the other end, the same thing long distance companies do with their computers at phone centers.

Two companies just started selling such software and another has plans to this summer. Going a step further, researchers at Cornell University are testing, with other schools and hospitals, software that allows video conferences through the Internet.

But there are many limitations.

The sound quality is not as good as the phone, though it can be with the right sound board inside a PC. In addition, people can't talk simultaneously so conversations end up being like CB radio. And you can only talk with those who use the same kind of software.

While the conversation may be free, the cost of a computer and monthly Internet connection are far higher than a telephone. And, of course, computers aren't nearly as widespread, mobile or easy to use as telephones.

For those reasons, the big long distance companies don't fear a stampede of people making calls through the Internet. Besides, a large portion of the Internet is built on phone networks, thus providing revenue for phone companies.

``It doesn't approach the same level of quality and reliability as you get on the voice network,'' said Patricia Parseghian, a technician at AT&T Corp.'s Bell Labs.

Some experts, noting long distance rates as low as a dime a minute, wonder if the idea will ever take off.

``I don't expect to do my voice communications over the Internet. Just because its technically possible doesn't mean its feasible or justifiable,'' said Howard Anderson, managing director of Yankee Group, a Boston-based consulting and research firm.

But it may appeal to people who already own PCs and have Internet connections, such as parents with children at college or companies with offices overseas.

Martin Horton of Fort Worth, Texas, said he would like to use it to converse with his parents in England but, since they don't have a PC, will aim for his son and daughter in the Northeast.

``At the moment, it's a novelty,'' Horton said. ``I'm trying to introduce my friends to it.''

Both Horton and Haus were test users of Internet Phone, a new program by VocalTec Inc. of Northvale, N.J.

The $50 software works with personal computers that run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. It has been marketed through the Internet for the past month but the company on Tuesday announced it would soon be bundled with modems by Motorola Inc. and audio chips by Cirrus Logic Inc.

Electric Magic Inc. of San Francisco has developed a similar program, called Net Phone, for owners of Apple Macintosh computers. It costs about $85 for two copies and demonstration versions are available on the Internet.

But Internet Phone and Net Phone don't work with each other, meaning a Mac owner can't converse with someone who owns a Windows PC.

By June, Camelot Corp. of Dallas plans to sell Pick, a Windows program it touts as capable of better sound and having both people speak simultaneously.

Cornell's researchers are gradually improving the video conferencing product, known as CU-SeeMe, to license to companies that will commercialize it. Dick Cogger, who leads the CU-SeeMe project team at Cornell, said early demand for such products will be among people who can accept technical difficulties.

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