Here’s a boondoggle!
Install a “soft phone” on your computer. For example this one works on my powerbook (other platforms too) just fine.
Now that can call other soft phones; but life is a little easier if you get a “virtual phone company” You could sign up with these folks; they are popular and they are cheap; actually they are free. Once you sign up, you need to configure the phone. Then you can call 800 numbers in the old fashion phone system; and that’s fun. For example if you dial 411 then you can talk to the TellMe voice recognition help line – so you don’t even need a friend to talk to! If you actually have friends then you will probably need a real headset with a microphone; but you can get pretty far with just headphones and the microphone in that’s built into the powerbook.
This world of voice over the internet is a lot like the early days of the land line phone system. In those days your village phone system might not connect to the rest of the world. Then they would announce that you could now call the next town. Very exciting! You’d have to dial a special access # and then the number in the town you were trying to reach.
You can configure that softphone to use 10 of these semi-phone-companies; just to make things wonderfully confusing.
I’ve tried this stuff about once a year for the last decade. What’s different this time is that is “just worked.” One reason for that is that they have gotten much better at figuring out how to work around the boxes (NAT) that people use to firewall and share thier internet connections. Of course this doesn’t alway work; but it’s better. A second reason is that some of these companies have started selling boxes that let these systems replace the local phone company. That’s made everything more reliable.
The reason I’m facinated by this is that one of the fundimental standards wars on the planet is betwen the traditional telecom industry and the internet. On the one side we have the traditional telecom industry with it’s “we are here to help you” model and on the other we have the “bandwidth!, we sell bandwidth!” model of the internet. Phone over raw bandwidth is really comming together. It’s not quite there yet. Fun for early adopters. For example one site will give you a free dial in number, another a free conference service, another a free voice mail and you can conspire to glue all these together. This is starting to look very disruptive, real soon now, for the landline phone companies. If you look out the window you may be able to see them running, afraid, hopefully, toward the cellular systems.
Call me, I’m in the book :-).