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September 13, 1999: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, but please include this introductory paragraph. For information on subscribing or unsubscribing to Papyrus News see


Two questions are often raised about the future of online communication. The first is, "Will online written communication be supplanted by online voice communication?" And the second is, "Will machine translation eventually became good enough that people won't need to communicate in a lingua franca, such as English, but will just communicate in their own language?"

A few interesting things have come through my mailbox on these points this week which I'll share in this message (voice communication) and the next one (machine translation).

The first question was raised years ago in an interesting article called "The Rise and Fall of Cyberliteracy" in the New York Times (sorry, I don't have the reference). The author speculated that voice communication would soon take over written communication, making writing online unnecessary. My own feeling is that online writing is going to be with us for a long time .

Below, Jeffrey Harrow of Compaq shares his comments on a new service allowing the creation of voice chat rooms online. I haven't tried it out yet (I use the Mac OS at home, not Windows, and I usually am too busy at the office to try these kinds of things) but I'll be interested in hearing from any of you who try it.

By the way, Harrow's weekly journal, the Rapidly Changing Face of Computing, is usually quite interesting and is available in two e-mail versions: either a full-text version or simply an announcement of the URL. I subscribe to the full text version as a reference, but I usually prefer reading it on the Web because he includes a lot of links and some photos.

In the next message I'll discuss machine translation.


[This is an excerpt from the "Rapidly Changing Face of Computing, " a free weekly multimedia technology journal written by Jeffrey Harrow, a senior consulting engineer for the Technology and Corporate Development group at Compaq. A more extensive version of this discussion, as well as others around the innovations and trends of contemporary computing and the technologies that drive them, are available at Jeff's opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Compaq. The RCFoC is Copyright 1999, Compaq Computer Corp.]

Chat Wars -- The Next Battle Is Joined!

It's no surprise, because Internet telephony programs have solved the technical hurdles for years, but now one of the large portal sites, Excite, has elevated "chat" from the textual world of AOL's chat service -- to voice.

This free service ( ), which allows you to join a pre-existing voice chat room or create your own, works with any Windows 95/98/NT machine that has a microphone and speakers -- and no software is required! (Well, actually the browser automatically downloads the software, but you don't have to do anything to get it.) And it worked -- first time. You join a chat room and see a list of the participants, and as each one speaks, their icon highlights. You speak simply by pushing the Control key.

As you might expect, the quality of the participants' audio varies, but I intentionally tested this over a 28.8 modem link and when the quality was good, it was quite good.

This isn't the first collaborative audio service on the Web, but it is the first one I've seen that both mirrors the extremely popular chat environments, and "is mainstream." And I believe this has irrevocably now raised the bar in a way that might make the recent AOL/Microsoft chat wars moot.

How long before all the chatters who don't like to type give this a try? How long before the chat competition has no choice but to also extend into the world of voice? (I wonder -- could there be a massive exodus of chatters from what is arguably AOL's most popular service? The Excite service does indeed work for those logged into AOL and using Internet Explorer!)

But the chat-changes likely won't end here. How long before one of the new voice-chat services adds still pictures, and then video? And, how long before businesses realize that this voice-chat service represents a global "conference call" system that is completely free? (However, for most businesses' employees to be able to reach out and chat beyond their intranet, it will require some firewall work -- this protocol is blocked by common firewall settings.)

Of course the move to voice-chat opens up a lot of opportunities along with its threats. How about voice-to-text software that monitors the voice chat rooms to retain a searchable (and legal?) record? What about people that would like to alter (or disguise) their voice -- real-time software to do this is certainly feasible with today's technology. Or on the darker side, will someone come out with software to eavesdrop on voice-chatters...

Bottom line? Text chat can still have its place (for example, how about adding real-time language translators to text-chat to facilitate a global environment -- until, that is, real-time voice translators come of age.)

But my guess is that we've just gone over another hump, and the day will not be far away when text chat will be an occasionally-remembered thing: "Hey, sonny, why I remember when..."

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Last updated: October 17, 1999