The move extends Excite's deal with voice technology firm Lipstream, which has been behind the portal's voice chat capabilities since June. Previously, the chat rooms in which users could talk to each other were not private.
With the new feature on Excite, a user gets his or her own Web address, and then can invite others to visit the private chat room. In essence, it means Excite can offer "free long distance service to our users," according to Corinne Finegan, product manager for group products at Excite.
Portal sites such as Excite, Yahoo, Lycos, and Infoseek historically have been in a constant race to one-up each other with features and services; when one began offering free email, stock quotes, or the like, the others have been quick to follow.
But there has been a splintering of sorts in terms of the portals' direction in the last few months. Excite was acquired by high-speed cable Internet access firm @Home earlier this year; by contrast, rival Yahoo has kept itself out of exclusive partnerships with access companies. Last month Disney acquired the portion of Infoseek it didn't already own, and Lycos, which almost became part of USA Networks, has broadened its scope with deals and acquisitions of its own.
One potential sticking point with the new service is that long distance giant AT&T is Excite@Home's largest shareholder. Finegan declined to comment on that point, except to say that "voice is a strong part of our strategy to combine personalization with communication on the Web." She added that the company expects the service to appeal to college students, small-business owners, and other budget-conscious Net users.
Although Excite@Home is counting on the eventual widespread availability of high-speed access services to homes, Finegan said the new voice chat service does not require that a user's Net connection be fast. Finegan said users need speakers and a microphone; she estimated that about 70 percent of computers have microphones and more than 90 percent have speakers.
Finegan and Tom D'Arezzo, director of product management for Lipstream, said there have been more than 500,000 downloads of the Lipstream technology since it was introduced on Excite in June. Lipstream also has a partnership with community site eGroups.