THE MARKET surf's up One day, the Net Phone will be a vital link in the global village ... one day
DETRACTORS of the Internet often claim it is nothing more than a great big, over-hyped CB radio of the Nineties. Recent developments are making it just that. With new technologies like Web Phone and Internet Phone you can now use your computer to talk to a loved one in America, Australia, or Digbeth, Birmingham, if you really have to - all for the price of a local phone call.

Internet Phone was the first product on the market and is the creation of Vol- tatec, a US company which predicts that the effects of the new technology on the telecommunications industry will be enormous. And it is not hard to understand why it is so bullish. The whole structure of the telecommunications industry revolves around the long distance and international telephone call - where the real money is made. Local calls are getting cheaper all the time, and their decline will become more pronounced as cable operators begin to be able to offer an effective level of competition to Brit-ish Telecom. In the US free local calls have already become the norm.

Presently the movement is too new to have attracted any noticeable response from the big telephone providers - and looking at Internet Phone in action it is manifestly obvious that it is not even a minor threat - yet. The number of people connected to the network at any one time is painfully few, so much so that total strangers "ring" each other for no apparent reason except that they can. Users can also join various "chat lines", including a general Internet Cafe, the more risque Hot Babes, Adult Sex and Gay Sex lines and the downright perverse, Star Trek channel. Radio 3, a commercial American radio station, is also using Internet Phone to pump its "Hot Sounds" across the world.

Conversations are more often than not "painful", forced, embarrassing. Conceptually, being able to talk to people from around the globe so easily (in this new fashion) seems a fascinating thing to do - until you are mouth-to-mouth with someone that you have absolutely nothing in common with, except perhaps the ownership of a hunk of silicon. What do you say? Conversations about EastEnders, what you did at work, the price of a pint of beer, even that mainstay of conversations, football, are no longer relevant when you talk to the likes of Makel in Uganda. No wonder conversations always follow the same path:

X: "Hi, what's your name?"

Y: "Y."

X: "Oh really? Weird name, Mine's X. Where are you calling from, Y?"

Y: "America."

X: "I'm from England."

Y: "Beautiful country ..."

Snore. Yet although the system is infinitely scoffable (barely out of the conceptual stage), the crest of the wave is still far into the distance, and five years on computers won't be passing real-time audio along the Internet's arteries, but real-time video as well. Computers will have extended beyond the sphere of the techno-geek and into the mass market, and getting the Internet number for an individual won't be that much harder than finding their telephone number.

And when that time comes you can bet there will be few laughing too loud. Quietest of all, will be the telephone providers ...