Let the Web Talk for You

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - The phone rings. Since you don't have caller ID, and it isn't the time of day when telemarketers normally call (that would be dinnertime), you just do the old-fashioned thing and pick up the phone.

Whadd'ya get? A strange computerized voice that says, "Hello. JoAnne Robb has sent you a talking message."

Talking message?

After this stilted introduction, an equally stilted message follows, the computerized voice reciting mechanically into the receiver.

What will they think of next?

This new telephony trick, called Keyboard Calling, is brought to you by Talk.com Inc., an Internet-based telecommunications company. The service allows you to type or record a message into your computer, then delivers it to any U.S. phone number you provide.

Once you register at Talk.com, you'll get up to 100 free keyboard messages a month. To send a text-based call, simply enter a phone number, the time you want the message delivered, and the message itself. Once the message has been recited to the caller, you'll receive an e-mail message telling you it's been sent. If you'd prefer your own voice to the automaton that reads text-based messages, you have the option to record a message. (Of course, that means that you need to have a microphone hooked up to your PC.)Fun, But Useful?

The company envisions that this service will appeal to busy executives who need reminder messages to pick up the dry cleaning and are too overwhelmed--while sitting at their PCs--to pick up the phone and call their home number. Or it will be tapped by broke college students who can't afford to call mom directly to wish her a happy birthday but can type a greeting into the computer.

There are a few problems here, though.

First and most important, Keyboard Calling can't leave messages on answering machines (although I did get messages on my voice mail system). The company says that this problem will be fixed in the future, which will be a good thing for those busy execs who need to leave themselves reminders.

Also, while I like the idea of sending myself (or someone else) a message at a predetermined time, right now Keyboard Calling will send messages only today or the next day.

What's more, I'm worried that if I sent a message like this to my mom, she might hang up--thinking it was some kind of crank call from a perverse robot--before she ever heard what I had to say.

So will anyone use this service? Probably -- it's actually fun. In fact, I sent a message to my brother--and then immediately called him to see what he thought.

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