If you have a single phone line and a dial-up Internet connection, you can't use your phone while you're online -- and that's that. It's like being told you can't use your fridge while your TV is on.
An evolving species of online service aims to lessen this problem by using variations on call forwarding. InfoInterActive's Internet Call Manager (US$5 per month), Pagoo's Call Catcher ($5 per month; six months prepaid required), and CallWave's Internet Answering Machine (free, but comes with ads) all employ the same basic principle. When you're online, incoming calls are sent to an 800 number via the busy/call-forwarding option that your phone company provides (usually at a monthly cost of $3 to $4 plus an activation fee). You're then alerted to the call via a pop-up screen on the PC desktop. The services, which can be used with any ISP, are much cheaper than adding a second phone line.
With Pagoo and CallWave, callers are forwarded to the 800 number (at no charge to you or the callers); at that number, they can leave a voice message that's sent to you instantly as an audio clip via the Internet. With Pagoo, the pop-up window appears only when you have a call. With CallWave, the window stays on your desktop and flashes ads when not in use.
InfoInterActive's Internet Call Manager takes a slightly different tack. It uses a built-in caller ID function to identify your caller on screen. You then choose one of three responses: "Call me back," "I'll call you back" or "Ignore this caller." If you choose the last option, the caller will be invited to leave a voice-mail message that you can later retrieve from a password-protected Web call center.
To set up any of these services, you need to download the software (easy enough), and then arrange to have your calls forwarded when your line is busy (surprisingly complex and costly). When I tried to establish busy/call forwarding with my phone company, I suffered through my worst tech-support headache in a long time: It took a week to get everything set up properly. The phone company also charged a $4.75 installation fee for call forwarding, plus $3.23 per month thereafter.
Of the three services, Pagoo's and CallWave's are more useful -- instant voice mail lets you determine immediately whether you want to go offline to return a call. I see very little real value in InfoInterActive's automated responses, and returning to the Web site to retrieve voice messages turned out to be slow and cumbersome. (The company is planning to offer expanded services in the future.) Both Pagoo and InfoInterActive let you try their services for free (the former for 30 days, the latter for 12 calls), but only Pagoo will refund your phone company fees if you opt out. (As noted, CallWave is already free, if you don't mind ads.)There's light on the horizon, however. Norton Networks is currently selling its all-in-one solution, Internet Call Waiting, to ISPs and telephone companies, which will in turn roll it out to consumers. I was not able to test Internet Call Waiting, but it appears to have everything: pop-up caller ID, call forwarding, and automated call-back messages, plus the option to switch over and take the call directly, either over the phone or via the PC. Microsoft Network is the first ISP to climb on board. Subscribers in Atlanta, Seattle, and San Diego can order the service now for an additional $5 to $6 per month.
We expect more cities -- and eventually more online services -- to get signed up soon.
CallWave Internet Answering Machine
PRO: Free; quick download and easy set-up routine.
CON: Ad-scrolling alert box stays on your desktop all the time.
VALUE: If you don't mind the ads, the price is right.
Street price: free
PRODUCT INFO NO. 712
InfoInterActive Internet Call Manager
PRO: Adds call-waiting feature to online voice-mail service.
CON: Intrusive pop-up windows.
VALUE: Wait for true call-answering features to roll out.
Street price: $5 per month
PRODUCT INFO NO. 699
Pagoo Call Catcher
PRO: Relatively easy setup, free trial with phone company fee refunds.
CON: Post-trial service requires six-month prepaid commitment.
VALUE: Relatively unobtrusive, a good buy if you like your free trial.
Street price: $30 for six months, $48 for 12 months.
PRODUCT INFO NO. 700