Software turns phone into walkie-talkie
By Jason Straziuso, Associated Press Writer, 9/18/2003
PHILADELPHIA -- Imagine a walkie-talkie whose range is so wide it reaches halfway around the world.
Seem far-fetched? That's what a new software program for cell phones promises -- and, for the most part, delivers.
Although the Fastchat software promised to deliver instant communication with my friend in Paris from my desk in Philadelphia, I was a bit skeptical when I first powered up my handset and pressed the talk button now doubling as a walkie-talkie button.
But after a relatively short delay, my Parisian friend was talking right back to me, although the flow of the conversation was slightly slower and scratchier than you'd get on a regular walkie-talkie.
Nextel and Motorola pioneered the use of cell phones as walkie-talkies using a special "push-to-talk" button on the side of the handset. The other major wireless carriers now plan to introduce the increasingly popular service for their subscribers.
But even when all carriers offer it, users will only be able to walkie-talkie with other subscribers to the same cell phone company.
With Fastchat, subscribers to different cellular companies in this country and abroad can do so. They don't even need a phone equipped with a special button because the service uses the phone's regular buttons.
The software, made by Fastmobile Inc. of Chicago, automatically downloads to your phone through a wireless transmission after you sign up, either at Fastmobile's Web site or through a chain of retail wireless stores called American Connection.
For now, however, the $3-a-month service is only compatible with two phone models sold in the United States: the Nokia 3650 and Sony Ericsson P800, both of which work on the wireless technology used by AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile.
Carriers, including those who use other wireless technologies, will soon introduce more models with the Symbian operating system needed for Fastchat. Even so, Fastmobile says it already has signed up 2,000 users in 44 countries since its May launch.
In reality, Fastchat is more like a voice version of "instant messaging" than a walkie-talkie. The software converts your voice into packets of data and transmits them just like a text message via the Internet data service now provided on most cell phones. When the message arrives at another cell phone with the software, the data is converted back into voice.
But this is no ordinary walkie-talkie conversation, where your message is heard once before disappearing into thin air. Because your voice is converted to data, messages can be archived. I can scroll up and down on the phone's screen and listen to messages from 30 seconds or three days ago.
It must be said that the term walkie-talkie, especially when compared to Nextel's Direct Connect service, is a bit of a stretch. Because the Internet is being used to relay Fastmobile's messages, there are noticeable delays. Separately, the voice quality is sometimes shaky, too.
Where speed and clarity are concerned, Fastmobile is no match for Nextel. Speaking to my cousin in California on nationwide Direct Connect was like speaking to the guy at the next desk -- that fast, that clear.
Given that, why would anyone choose Fastmobile? Three reasons: Its reach is international, it connects phones from rival carriers and it's surprisingly inexpensive.
Beyond the $3 a month for the Fastchat voice service, there's usually a charge to use your cell phone company's wireless Internet service, which typically costs between $3 and $15, depending on how much data capacity you buy. By comparison, regional use of Nextel's service is included in the monthly plan, while national coverage costs extra.
The bottom line, though, is that cell phone users can talk as much as they want without using up wireless minutes for an extra $10 or $20 a month -- not a bad deal if you're chatting with someone in another country.
My Paris friend and I agreed that Fastmobile would be fantastic to communicate with family members or other loved ones overseas. Businesses, too, might find Fastchat's connect-anywhere technology useful and cost-effective.
Just keep in mind that you'll have to adjust to the flow of a "walkie-talkie" conversation instead of a regular telephone call. At first I was disappointed in the slight communication delay, but I later learned to appreciate it.
It took away the expectation of a true phone conversation, allowing my Fastchat-test friends (in Paris and Denver) and I to fire off voice messages at our own pace.