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Internet Phone gets some static

The beta version of Intel's Internet Phone has been downloaded 100,000 times, but not without complaints.

Intel's Internet Phone has drawn nearly ten times the number of expected downloads, but the first iteration of the technology has also demonstrated some key weaknesses.

The phone lets users talk to each other by linking their PCs over the Internet. With the first beta version released at the end of last month, Intel expected to get about 10,000 downloads in the first few weeks. Instead, the company is now close to 100,000 downloads of the beta software.

"This is ten times what we expected. We had to set up eight T1 (high-bandwidth) lines full time to keep up with the download demand," said Rick Yeomans, marketing manager for the phone at Intel, which is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network. "There were about 40,000 Internet phones in use already; add 100,000 [Intel phones] to this. This is a watershed event for the Internet."

But the high demand has also meant that lots of users have noticed some conspicuous technical problems with one of Intel's first forays into stand-alone commercial software, including some problems that seem surprising even with beta products:
--The phone doesn't work with PCs running 486 microprocessors, not even fast ones like the 100-MHz DX4 processor. Moreover, users will likely get less-than-acceptable performance with even a 75-MHz Pentium processor.
--The phone does not operate properly with PCs running on Cyrix processors, such as Cyrix's Pentium-class 6X86 processors.
--The phone runs only on Windows 95 machines, not Windows NT or Windows 3.x PCs.
--The phone doesn't work behind company firewalls.
--In some cases, unbeknownst to the user, only a portion of the Internet Phone software is downloaded and therefore installation is not completed properly.

Intel will release a second beta version of this software in about a month to address some of these problems, but not all of them. "Remember, this is beta software," Yeomans reminds.

He pointed out that the software requires performance at least equal to that of a 90-MHz Pentium. Faster processors, such as 120-, 133-, and 166-MHz chips offer even better performance. Intel is considering a version of the phone that can be used with 486 processors but isn't sure if the audio quality will be acceptable to users, Yeomans said.

Intel is working to fix the Cyrix incompatibility and is looking at possible issues with the audio algorithm Intel is using. Intel is "looking at our software [as the problem], not their chip," he added.

The fact that the phone does not work when the user tries to dial through a corporate firewall, on the other hand, may not go away, Yeomans said. "We'll build something that can recognize the firewall, then tell the user you can't do this," he said, suggesting that users dial direct instead of going through the firewall.

On the operating system front, Intel does not have plans to come out with versions of the phone for Windows 3.X or Windows NT, partially because Microsoft's NetMeeting audio conferencing software is expected to be bundled into Windows NT early in 1997.

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