Voice Over Internet Both Simple, Complex
By FRANK BAJAK, AP Technology Editor
We have more ways than ever of communicating, but trying to keep up
with family and friends can be exasperating. Our overlapping free time
seems to shrink. We constantly play phone and voice mail tag. And
e-mail, in its tone-deaf impersonality, barely helps.
One of the most unorthodox and intriguing among 32 new products
launched onstage at this week's DEMOfall conference, a showcase of
tech innovation, was a Web-based tool with a mission: to encourage
emotional connection via audio messages.
Not two-way conversations, mind you. Just me telling you my
news. Click, talk and send.
The product is called YackPack because the user creates groups, or
packs, of people who can be audio-messaged individually or
collectively. Each member of your pack gets an icon with his or her
picture on it. An e-mail notification tells you when a Yack has
"It turns out that asynchronous audio is the secret sauce for what
keeps relationships alive and fresh," said B.J. Fogg, the company
founder and chief executive. Much of YackPack's recipe came from the
year Fogg spent with a focus group of women over age 50.
Unlike Fogg, the typical tech startup CEO will bend your ear with
metrics on market potential while spouting technobabble that would
befuddle all but us geeks.
Such people abounded at DEMOfall, where other promising products
pitched to an elite crowd of investors and press also sought to better
manage relationships: by turning a cell phone into a conference-call
manager, helping eBay users place bids wirelessly, protecting the
privacy of online consumers.
Fogg, on the other hand, was more apt to be accused of
psycho-babble. He is, after all, a Stanford psychologist in addition
to being a computer scientist.
"We're helping people connect emotionally, and that leads to
happiness," he said.
Santa Rosa, Calif.-based YackPack goes live in mid-October and will be
free while in beta, then cost well under $10 per month, with a free
ad-based version, Fogg says.
There's no software to download, and Fogg says YackPack even works
with dial-up connections. All you need is to get a microphone working
with your computer.
"Three-year-olds can do it. Grandmas can do it. People who can't read
and write can do it," said Fogg.
He sees the product as benefiting circles well beyond families --
cancer support groups, for example.
DEMO's semiannual shows have been springboards for such industry
standouts as TiVo, the Palm Pilot and the Danger HipTop. After six
years under the DEMOmobile moniker, this year's fall show got a name
change in recognition of our ability to finally go online wirelessly
with increasing ease.
DEMO show producer Chris Shipley says the legions of ultra-productive
but also constantly reachable and thus often harried "always-on
people" are driving today's tech market. Shipley calls it the dawning
era of "ultrapersonal computing."
Software and services thus dominated DEMOfall, with a number of
products appearing poised to humble industry giants, especially in
One was Mobile Call Manager from Menlo Park, Calif.-based TalkPlus
Inc., which uses Internet phone technology over the traditional
cellular network. It makes cheap calls available on cell phones while
adding such features as the ability to have multiple phone numbers
ring on a single handset and on-the-fly conference calling with up to
That's something no wireless carrier now offers.
CEO Jeff Black claims he'll be able to offer low, low rates -- 2 cents
a minute for calls within the United States and Canada -- and he's
lining up multiple carriers internationally for a Jan. 1 launch. He
wouldn't name the partners.
Jingle Networks Inc. of San Francisco sees directory assistance as
another huge market -- worth an estimated $8 billion a year in the
United States -- that's ripe for the plucking.
To bypass the traditional carriers, Jingle connects callers for free to the
business, government office or residence of their choice. The trade-off for
using 1-800-FREE-411: Callers must first listen to a 12-second recorded
Jingle's success will depend on its ability to sign up local
merchants. When I called the service to get my home phone number, the
pitch I heard, after following the voice prompts, was for Jingle
The cell phone is also the key for Camden, N.J.-based Smarter Agent
Inc. Its first service, expected next year, will deliver real estate
listings to mobile handsets based on a user's location.
If you like a neighborhood but are nowhere near a computer, you'll be
able to use a map on your cell phone screen to see what nearby houses
are on the market, the asking price and other details. You'll even be
able to search to see recent selling prices for comparable homes in
the neighborhood. Smarter Agent, a registered Realtor, draws on the
Multiple Listing Service used by agents across the nation on their Web
Safeguarding privacy online has become an ever more serious concern
with identity theft a mounting problem. That was reason enough for a
company called UniPrivacy Inc. to build a business on protecting
The company's newly launched DeleteNow product will, for $2.99 per
month, remove information about you from more than 100 online sources
-- search engines and databases including Google Inc. -- and check
those sites daily to make sure the information stays off.
However, plenty of sites that might contain personal information about
you, such as Claria Corp., aren't cooperating, says chief executive
Chaz Berman. The more customers UniPrivacy acquires, the more clout
it will have, and Berman says it plans to eventually "out" those sites
that refuse to cooperate.
After all, "When you join we become your legal agent."
Frank Bajak can be reached at techeditor(at)ap.org
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Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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