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Prodigy to allow voice chat

Prodigy users will be able to chat with their voices rather than their fingers starting in April.

Prodigy users will be able to chat with their voices rather than their fingers starting in April.

Today, the online service said it would use speech-compression technology from Voxware (VOXW) so that Prodigy Internet subscribers can speak to each other in their own voices, instead of having to peck out their thoughts on a keyboard in Prodigy's chat forums.

Like its competitors, Prodigy is trying to jazz up the online experience for its users by giving them more than the standard text and graphics found on most online services. Prodigy may end up being the first to offer telephone capabilities to its subscribers though, since a similar plan by America Online has been waylaid while the company deals with more pressing problems with its network.

AOL, too, has licensed voice-compression technology from Voxware so that its subscribers can place calls to each other over the AOL network. But the company's Internet telephone plans are currently on hold because of the network access problems that are currently plaguing its customers.

"Prior to recent developments, we were expecting to have it ready by spring," Matt Nerzig, an AOL spokesman, said today. "I wouldn't be surprised if that got pushed back a bit though."

Representatives of another online service, Microsoft Network, said today that they are still considering the possibility of giving customers an Internet telephone--most likely Microsoft's own NetMeeting software. "We think it's an interesting opportunity," said Tom Firman, director of technology at MSN.

Instead of using the traditional phone network, Internet telephones allow voice calls to travel over the Internet, bypassing the normal long distance charges that apply to phone calls. Although the quality of Net phone calls is still primitive and works only when users are actually connected to the network, voice communications could eventually become attractive to online service subscribers who want to save money on long distance calls.

Initially, Prodigy's Internet telephone will allow only Prodigy Internet subscribers to talk to each other, not to members of other online services or Internet service providers. The telephone will be integrated into a new text-chat client, a program for having real-time keyboard conversations with other users. Prodigy will also use Voxware's VoiceFont, a technology that alters a users voice.

Because Prodigy and MSN are more closely integrated with the Internet than AOL and other online services, users can download their own Internet telephones from the Net. But Prodigy's bundling of the Voxware technology should greatly simplify voice communications for most users.

"In reality the average person doesn't know how to do that," said Mike Darcy, a Prodigy spokesman. "We will be bundling our technology automatically for our subscribers."

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