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Snap Instant Communicator: The Web intercom

Sweetheart, where's my coffee?

The Snap Instant Communicator is one of the weirdest little gizmos I've seen in a while. It's a push-to-talk intercom system that runs on a PC and it only works when the Snap hardware console--which is just a few buttons, a speaker, and a microphone--is plugged in to it.

The console has eight labeled lights for the people you talk to the most. Once you add other Snap users into your account and label their spots on your device, all you have to do is press the button next to a name, and if the other party accepts the call (by pressing the corresponding button on their device for your name, which will be blinking), you're connected in real time.

Intercom 2.0? It's the Snap Instant Communicator. CNET / Rafe Needleman

Let's be very clear: There are dozens of other ways you can connect with a co-worker for quick communication. You can call them, Skype them, or use a Nextel push-to-talk connection. You can use instant-messaging software, or e-mail. You can video-call. You can yell.

But if you like the idea of being able to just push a button to start an instant hands-free voice communication with someone you work with closely, then this is the gizmo for you. As Josh says, "It's great. As long as your boss doesn't have one."

The intercom concept is ancient, and the device has a certain retro flair to it, but the Snap has modern functions. The lights next to users' names act as presence indicators. They're on when the user's PC is on and they're working, and they go off after a period of inactivity. (Users can also press the Privacy button on the device to disappear from the network.)

Users can create a real-time conference call among Snap users just by pressing more users' buttons. If a user tries to connect to someone who is not present, the system can automatically try a telephone line instead (U.S. calls are charged at 2 cents a minute). Alternatively, a voice message can be left, which will be sent to the user as an e-mail attachment.

Configuring is done on a simple Web page.

It looks like the setup will be very easy, although our early beta units did give us trouble. To get started, users run an application from the Web, plug in the device, and invite co-workers (or buddies). If the invitees have a Snap, they'll be connected to each others' network. If not, the person on the receiving end will get a coupon for a discount on their own device. That makes for a nice viral business model.

My biggest complaint is that there's no "soft" version of the intercom. Users must have the hardware to use the network. Traveling businesspeople are not going to want to schlep their Snap gizmo with them everywhere they go. I had a disagreement with CEO Todd Smith on this. Smith said that he couldn't guarantee call quality on laptop speakers, and that his business is based on selling hardware. He suggested that users will take the intercom with them. "But it's too big," I complained. "And you've weighted it to make it seem more substantial." "No, we didn't." Smith said. Meanwhile, the VP of engineering, who was sitting behind him, was looking at me and nodding his head. At any rate, I think I got Smith to relent, and he is considering a software version of the product for traveling users.

The Snap Communicator will be officially announced in March, and should hit retail stores in April. It will initially sell for $99 in two-packs. It's PC-only and is clearly not for everyone, but I think it will find a following.