Chatting round the world for free

The first thing most people want to use the internet for is email. Never has it been so cheap, quick and easy to communicate with other people anywhere in the world. Using email, however, requires knowing your way around a keyboard, a little understanding of email addresses and how email software or webmail works. Some learning is needed before one can get started. Email is not communication in real time – you send your message and have to wait for your friend to reply. Unless they are online, chances are you won’t receive anything back until next time you visit an internet café. In these days of mobile phones this really doesn’t seem as satisfying as what we perhaps yearn for.

Then came instant messaging. Using programmes such as Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger you can see when your friends are online and send and receive short messages – effectively having a conversation. This still requires knowing the keyboard. For most people who aren’t accomplished typists, replying to a message requires searching for each letter, slowing down the flow of the chat.

The most natural form of human communication is speech. Available to both young and old, it is the fastest way we can share what is on our minds. No wonder the market for mobile phones is so huge worldwide. Technology based around speaking requires the least learning. I bet your grandmother knows how to chat on the simu.

When we speak on the telephone the sound waves made by our voices are converted into electronic signals. These are transported via the phone network to the person you are calling. The internet is designed for transferring data between
computers – data is transferred as electronic signals – so why not use the internet to send our voices? It is less efficient to transfer sounds than text – after all, you can make more sounds than the 26 letters of the alphabet. Text and other simple data are cheaper to transfer over the internet than voice.

Using the internet to make phone calls is not particularly new. The technology known as Voice Over Internet Protocol (or VOIP) has been around for nearly ten years, but not widely used by anyone other than large businesses who could
afford high speed connections.

Things have moved on a long way since then. A number of internet cafes in Arusha have been offering cheap international phone calls using VOIP for at least two years. However quality was often very low while the price often was not.

As broadband connections have become more common the possibility of people using VOIP has grown. Instant messaging programmes have started to include “voice chat” capabilities – rather than typing your message why not chat
like on the phone? Yahoo! Messenger has the best voice chat of any of the instant messaging programmes. Whilst writing this article I have been chatting on Yahoo! with my friend Riz who lives in Japan. The quality is not brilliant – I can only understand about every other word that Riz says. When I don’t understand something he can type it, so the conversation is just about manageable.

I wish he would get a programme called Skype.

Skype is currently the best VOIP software available. It is free to download, and allows free calls between users of Skype, and cheap phone calls to the regular phone network in many countries. The sound quality is actually better than the telephone – when you chat using Skype it really does sound like the person is in the next room. If you want to get into voice chat, or really add some value to your internet café, Skype is a worthwhile download.

What Yahoo! has that Skype does not is the ability to use Webcams. Using a small camera connected to my computer pictures are sent along with the conversation. I can see Riz sitting at his computer. Human communication is enhanced when we can see the other person’s face – their expressions add to what they say. Whilst I can’t understand every word that Riz says I can tell if he is smiling or pausing for thought.

When Riz installs Skype we may be able to use it together with Yahoo’s webcam mode. With this technology, despite being separated by thousands of miles we can chat as if we were sitting in the pub – maybe we can enjoy a beer together on different continents.

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Originally published in Arusha Times 355

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