Telephone Exploits the Web
AT&T Broadband Phone
by Jim Bray
Your telephone may be poised to make the leap into cyberspace.
The British arm of telecommunications giant AT&T is working on what
it's calling the Broadband Phone System, a nifty-sounding gadget that
could turn a conventional telephone into a flexible and powerful communication
and collaboration tool.
The broadband phone is initially envisioned as an enhancement to the
way businesses communicate in their everyday activities, but if it works
out in that environmnent it isn't much of a leap to think it could show
up in people's home as well. I hope it does; it sounds pretty neat.
The phone obviously lets you talk to whomever you want, otherwise it
wouldn't be much of a phone. The difference here is that it uses the Internet
as its medium of transmission rather than conventional phone lines. That
isn't quite as innovative as it sounds, however; there are already plenty
of what's called "Voice over IP" solutions rearing their heads these days.
Still, it's a nice way to get cheap long distance service, because once
the telephone signal leaves the wired world and enters cyberspace there's
no longer any difference between a call across the street and a call around
What the AT&T broadband phone adds to this mix is a touch screen
LCD monitor (complete with a stylus), plus a variety of appropriate software
applications that AT&T thinks will open up a whole world of opportunities.
How about this for an example? You, and the person you're calling, can
use the screen as a sketchpad, which means you'll be able to draw maps
and diagrams, sketch a room layout, or even do something really important
-- like have a game of tic tac toe.
Naturally, the scribblings are visible at both ends of the call, otherwise
there wouldn't be much point.
Sounds like a really nice way to collaborate, doesn't it? I can think
of many times when I'd have loved to be able to sketch directions to my
house to someone at the other end of the phone line -- like a pizza delivery
person or a new friend (though, with my love of pizza, this could be one
and the same person).
Or how about accessing photograph collections and showing the pictures
to the person you're calling? I can see this as another wonderful feature,
not just for inflicting shots of the little ankle biters onto unsuspecting
family members, but as a way to demonstrate anything from a new sign on
your corporate headquarters to a picture of your new car. Not a big deal,
perhaps, but it's still a nice bit of flexibility.
AT&T says you'll also get more traditional Internet features, like
messaging, voice mail, e-mail, chat, and fax. The LCD screen will also
be able to host a Web Browser, so people at both ends of the call can
research something on the Web at the same time.
Since the phone uses the big data pipeline of the Internet and is controlled
by customizable software, the range of applications could be really wide,
and AT&T says the broadband phone can be tailored to the environment
in which it's being used.
In a hotel, for example, dumbed down versions of the phones could be
installed in the lobby, limited to only a few functions such as calling
a room or looking over the restaurant menu. On the other hand, broadband
phones in the hotel rooms themselves could allow outside calls, web-surfing,
features on the hotel's shops - or ones nearby - and express check-out
functions where you could actually look over your bill in advance.
The company also says the broadband phone will support such vital functions
as games (they mention chess, pong, and multi-player crossword puzzles)
and a digital music jukebox.
When will the phone be available? Well, AT&T isn't being specific,
but it claims to have a Broadband phone on every desk of its Cambridge,
England, laboratory and says they'll completely replace their old internal
phone system "soon." They're currently doing trials aimed at testing the
system's capabilities and reliability.
The whole thing probably boils down to "not a big deal, but a nice tool."
I doubt the world will be made a better place because of this AT&T
broadband phone, but it might be a little more convenient or efficient
and that isn't a bad thing.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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