ItRings Ends the Busy Signal

SAN FRANCISCO (08/04/2000) - I'll admit it: I still connect to the Internet using a dial-up modem, so if I want to surf the Net, I can't receive phone calls. My callers get a busy signal, and I don't get important calls.

The developer of ItRings, ERings Solutions Inc., offers a solution, with a catch. The program, formerly called ERing, is available either as a free, advertising-supported version, or as a fee-based service sans ads that costs $4.95 monthly. The newest update, version 5.0, promises faster service, a better interface, and voice-mail functions.

ItRings 5.0 takes a while to download--about an hour using a 56-kilobits-per-second connection--but is quick and easy to install. You provide your area code and phone number, an e-mail address, and some basic demographic information. You then select a password, and you are ready to receive calls to your heart's content.

Running the free, ad-based version places a banner advertisement on your screen, regardless of what application you're using, whenever you run ItRings.

You can dock the banner at the top or bottom of your screen. It is slightly thinner than a typical banner ad, but it runs the width of your screen. It also features several flashing ads, which can be annoying.

To use the service, your callers must know the ItRings access number; they can't reach you simply by dialing your number. Instead, they must dial a toll-free or local access number, and then enter your phone number. When you receive a call, you hear a phone-ring sound and a dialog box pops up, showing you the number of the incoming call.

Not Your Usual Phone Call

You don't have to log off to take the call, but the ensuing conversation bears some resemblance to a verbal version of online chat. Each participant talks in turn and records a message. For example, the caller speaks into the phone, recording a message, and presses a key to send it. The person online presses a key on the screen to hear the message, and can then record a message and send it to the person on the phone.

It's a somewhat stilted way of having a "conversation," but that's why the service is free, says Luc St-Arnaud, president and chief executive of ItRings.

He likens the service to using a walkie-talkie or a CB radio. The company is developing a real-time streaming version, but has no release date set. That product will likely not be free, but St-Arnaud says it will be affordable.

A major and obvious drawback to ItRings is that your callers must know to call you through the service, using the ItRings phone number. But there's a benefit to that: Because ItRings is not attached to your phone line, callers can reach you no matter where you are online. However, the service does not work behind firewalls.

If you get a call when you're not logged on, ItRings lets your callers record a message, which you'll get the next time you log on to the service. To use the service, you'll need a sound card, speakers, a microphone, and Windows 95, 98, NT, or 2000.

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