Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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April 2004, Week 3 -- Free Phone Calls Are Now Connected





   The new "PocketSkype" software lets you make free international and domestic phone calls from handheld computers. Such handhelds are often called PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and are increasingly popular. The software is also free from

   Two things are required to make this work: The PDA must use the Microsoft "Pocket PC" operating system and must be wi-fi enabled, meaning it can connect to the Internet by wireless. This is not as unusual a combination as it might sound. "Pocket PC" is by far the most common system for handhelds. And the top PDA makers are now selling units that combine the PDA with a phone, camera and wi-fi. Basically these are ready to go worldwide with free phone calls and photo transmission.


   PocketSkype is an extension of the desktop version called Skype. The desktop version is available in 15 languages and works with computers using Windows 2000 or XP. The only real hang-up (no pun intended) is that calls can only be completed to users who also have the Skype software. 


   Skype is not the only software that enables phone calling on the Internet. "Net2Phone"  used to be free but now charges a small amount.  It lets you make calls to users of regular telephones as well as computer phones.


   All such software requires the user to have a so-called broadband connection to the Internet. That would be a connection using cable, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), satellite or something similar for high-speed transmission. By June of this year it is estimated that one half of all U.S. computer users will have broadband connections.


   Broadband service is fast becoming available for free from many sources through the creation of so-called "wi-fi hot spots." Such hot spots are locations with short-range wireless connections to the Internet, so anyone with a wi-fi computer that's in range can simply start up and go on the Internet. Some coffee shops (notably Starbuck's), restaurants and hotels have already set up free wi-fi access as a way to attract business. Makes sense. Their numbers are certain to increase.


   The technology is called "Voice Over Internet Protocol," or VOIP for short. The computer digitizes your speech, sends it over the Internet to another computer, where similar software translates that digital feed back to voice. If someone calls you with Skype, you hear a ring on your computer. You need a microphone and speakers or earphones to hold a conversation, which in many new computers or monitors are built in. There are also accessories that look and work like a regular telephone and connect to the computer. This technology has been around for many years but had bad sound quality. The sound quality is now so good that major telephone companies are starting to offer the service, but not for free. Skype sound quality has been rated best by users and some testing labs.


   There have been 9.5 million copies of Skype downloaded since the site opened in August of last year (2003). Experts in this field estimate that one-third of all international phone calls are now being made for free through the Internet. It's impossible to verify that number but it doesn't seem unreasonable. When we downloaded the software and signed onto the directory late at night, the program notified us that 145,000 Skype users were online at that very moment. You can search for other users by name and you can also use Skype to send instant text messages to any other user. There is no charge for any of this.


   Just recently the Skype software group added conference calling to the program's other capabilities. Up to five people can now be online simultaneously, holding a conference at no cost; the length of the calls is unlimited. You can put up to 16 people on hold if you want, letting them into the conference or a single line call as space frees up.


Internuts: cliches

--  A fascinating and fun site. For instance: you can search through 3,300 cliches: "It's a jungle out there." "Don't cry over spilt milk." "Useful as a screen door in a submarine." etc. Also has a word counter that examines any text and provides a count of the most used words, second most used, etc. Site offers $100 to anyone who can figure out what a piece of incomprehensible business jargon actually means. (He must have been getting the same press releases we get.) The site also has etymologies, words within words, etc. All in all, one of the most interesting sites we've ever found.

-- Haven't we all noticed that the hero can never defuse a time bomb until there's only one second to go? When you need to get away from the monster right away, the car won't start. All women being chased by bad guys are running in high heels and always fall while they're running, even when there's nothing in the way. When the camera zooms in on someone in a creature feature, the creature is always closing in. Movie characters driving in big cities never have any trouble parking.


--  Lists cliches, with explanations and country of origin. "All for in and one for all;" (England). "Don't get your knickers in a knot;" (Australia). Most are from the United States: "Shotgun wedding." "Chew the fat." "Just a cotton pickin"


NOTE: Readers can search more than three years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at and Joy Schwabach at