Kitakyushu JET: Creating a Webphone
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Creating a Webphone

Most JETs phone their home countries fairly regularly, to keep in touch with friends and family. Unfortunately even the cheapest of Japanese international telephone companies are far from cheap, and rates can vary greatly between countries. Well, for those who own computers at least, there is now an alternative. It seems logical that since computers connected to the world wide web are using the telephone systems, it should also be possible to use the world wide web as a telephone. Some bright spark at Microsoft (and a few others) was considerate enough to develop software to allow computer users to do just that, and what's more, the software is freely available on the internet. Of course nothing comes without a price of some kind, but we'll leave that until later.

What you need:
Computer (with internet, microphone and speakers).
MSN Messenger software (free).
Passport setup to identify you (free).
Any e-mail account (usually free).

Obviously the person to whom you are 'phoning' also needs these things on their computer. Thankfully it should only take 10 minutes to set up your computer, following the directions below, and then you are set to make international calls at local phone rates.

Your computer:
Most laptops have microphones built-in, but if you are using a large desktop computer, you will need to get hold of a microphone of some sort (a cheap one will do fine). You will also need speakers so you can hear the other person. The last thing you'll need to check is that your computer has a 'full duplex sound card'. Don't worry too much about this, because most modern computers should have them already built-in. If you don't have one of these (and you probaby do) you won't be able to speak and listen at the same time; i.e. your computer will switch between microphone and speaker as necessary.

Obtaining an identification Passport:
This isn't some kind of conspiracy to control the populace, but instead a bit of computer identification. It links your name to your e-mail address, and since most e-mail addresses contain your name anyway, it shouldn't cause any personal rights controversy. If you already have a Hotmail e-mail account, then you apparently don't need to bother getting one of these. Microsoft added the Passport system in order to widen the software market to those who don't hold Hotmail accounts. You can apply for a passport at http://www.passport.com/default.asp. All you need are the address of your e-mail account, and 3 minutes of your time.

Downloading the Messenger software:
Visit Microsoft Network's site at http://messenger.msn.com/download/download2.asp and download the Messenger software. It will take about 1 megabyte of memory (that's less than 1 floppy disk), and 5-10 minutes to download from the internet. It should install itself automatically (if not, then click on the file icon), and connect itself up to your internet software. Once it's installed on your computer, then it should start running the software programme every time you start your computer up. So as soon as you're connected to the internet through your phone line, the software will 'sign you in', and check to see if anyone you know is also online at that time. If they are, then it will go 'ping'. Exciting, yes?

Compiling your address book of contacts:
The Messenger software doesn't use the same address book as your e-mail software (for example, if you're using Outlook Express for e-mail). So you have to start building one from scratch. The only people who you'll be able to 'locate' on the web are those who have also signed up for a Passport, or who are using hotmail accounts. So to be able to locate your friends and family, you need to tell them to follow the steps as shown on this page (i.e. the same as you). Once you've done the setup (as above) on your computer, and they've also done the same setup, then you should be able to type in their e-mail address, and locate them. All that may have sounded complicated, but it is in fact really easy. While you're waiting for your friend to sign up too, and if you're curious to see how it works, then by all means have a go at 'locating' me, by typing in my e-mail address: david-m@interlink.or.jp. If you're very, very lucky, then I might just be online at the same time, and we can have a wee chat! Now, isn't that something to look forward to?! And after you know it works, I won't be offended if you delete me from your address book.

What's the catch?
Since the software is completely free, you've probably worked out that money isn't the catch. And I'm not working on commission either - I'm just trying to spread the word (because I hate the monopoly of big companies on overpriced phone calls)! Having said that, I'm also doing exactly what Microsoft wants by helping to give them an even greater monopoly over computer users.

That, by the way, is the first catch - by downloading and using their software, you are helping to spread Microsoft's icy tendrils over an even wider audience. However I, for one, am prepared to live with that shame, as long as I can save some money!

The other way that Microsoft gains from this free service is by flashing little commercials (like 'ad banners') across the bottom of the Messenger box while you're using it, in the hope that you'll spot some advert that interests you, and follow the links. To be honest, that shouldn't be a big deal; if you're in the middle of a conversation, then you're probably unlikely to cut it short just to investigate a commercial for cat litter or something!

And that... is pretty much that. With no real catches, and sound quality equalling a normal telephone call (maybe - depends on the computer), you get to make calls to anywhere connected to the internet, at a fraction of the normal price. At time of writing, internet call rates are 3 to 4 yen per minute. I strongly recommend trying it - you honestly have nothing to lose!