Every now and then you stumble onto a product that makes you sit up and take notice. A product that not only delights you, but surprises you.
Multitude's Firetalk (www.firetalk.com) voice-chat software is just such a product.
First, the Firetalk software is free ... and small. When downloaded and operational, it's a little bigger than 1 megabyte - a relative pipsqueak.
Second, it sounds great, even over a 28.8 modem connection. During lengthy conversations, the voice signal remains strong, with a slight delay as the only sign that you're talking on the Internet and not on a regular phone.
Third, it has more extras than a full-size minivan.
Once you start Firetalk, it sits in the background and waits for a call.
When you do receive a call, the program actually "rings," so that you know someone is trying to reach you. Firetalk has two lines, so that if you're chatting with one friend, and another calls, you can put the first one on hold and chat with the second.
But the truly unique Firetalk features are the ones that build on the strength of the Web. For a moment, imagine you're a teacher and you would like to take your class on a tour of all the good Web sites about, oh, Emily Dickinson. You can give the students a Web tour with Firetalk.
Once you're all online using the software, Firetalk allows you to take control of other browsers (provided the owners give you permission online) and lead a tour of the appropriate sites. Currently up to 80 people can be on a tour at the same time.
Or suppose you belong to the Spoons of America Club. While you enjoy text chats with your fellow spooners, you would relish a chance to have a real chat. Firetalk has again provided a solution.
The company has Firetalk-"enabled" more than 63 million Web pages. Once in the Firetalk program, launch your browser and surf to the Spoons of America Club home page. Once there, you'll be able to chat with all other spoon fans who happen to be visiting there as well - the actual Web page acts as the container for the chat.
Problems? Firetalk requires a full-duplex sound card, and that means an upgrade for older PCs. (A new sound card will cost between $70 and $100.)
Currently, Microsoft Internet Explorer is the only browser you can use with Firetalk (although staff at Multitude say they will have a Netscape plug-in ready by March). Also, unlike the Aplio phone, which is an Internet device, you need a computer to run Firetalk. So using it to talk to relatives and friends without computers in remote corners of the globe is a problem.
And worst of all, Firetalk can only be used with Windows95/98/NT operating systems; Mac users are going to have to wait until September at the earliest for a Mac-compliant version.
Yet even with these problems, PC users (and eventually Mac users) are going to like Firetalk. Look for it to quickly become one of the standards in the rapidly growing area of Internet voice technologies.
*You can e-mail Tom Regan at: Tom@csmonitor.com
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society