Talking Heads

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This story appears in the October 1998 issue of Subscribe »

Can a "talking" robot make your friendlier and more useful? You bet. And that's just the thing San Francisco-based company Neuromedia is recommending. It has commercialized a program for Web sites that utilizes "chatterbots," talking robots that appear to understand and respond intelligently to questions typed in free-form text.

In fact, chatterbots are no more intelligent than a potato. They're just cleverly programmed to recognize certain word patterns and then respond with scripted answers.

Although the technology has been around for three decades or so, only computer programmers had the level of expertise to utilize them effectively. But Neuromedia has made it easy for even nonexperts to develop chatterbots and "teach" them how to respond to typical questions, such as "Where is the catalog?" and "What is the price of the green model?"

Until now, complex Web sites often used text-search programs to help visitors find specific information; people still ended up searching through long lists before getting what they needed, however. Chatterbots can engage visitors in a dialogue, which quickly narrows their searches. With Neuromedia's program, you can have a chatterbot up and running in about a month, and it can be refined over time to answer additional questions. The price: $339 for the basic software. For a demonstration, check out For more on bot technology in general, head to

Turning The Page

With the rising popularity of the Internet, laptop computers, high-resolution displays and all things digital, many have worried over the fate of the book. Will it be replaced by the computer? We may soon know--two start-up companies are launching lines of electronic books this fall.

SoftBook Press ( of Menlo Park, California, and NuvoMedia ( of Palo Alto, California, have come out with handheld devices that store and let you scroll through texts of virtually any length. These products are designed to retrieve full-length books, business documents, reports and other items through standard modem connections to the Internet--making your Web research a snap. Once full of text, these devices' internal batteries let you run them for as long as 45 hours. As for weight, SoftBook weighs 2.9 pounds while NuvoMedia's RocketBook measures in at 20 ounces. Each is about the size of a paperback book.

Several leading publishing houses have signed on to supply books and other materials to these companies, including Random House and Simon & Schuster. SoftBook plans to charge $299 for its electronic book, plus a $9.95 per month subscription fee to search its online library and download texts. With a 33.6K modem inside, this device can reportedly download 100 pages per minute. NuvoMedia's product is less defined at this point, with no pricing details available.

What's it like to read from an electronic page? These devices' screens are fairly clear, but they offer nothing like the readability of a printed page. Still, this may be the shape of things to come.

Have Phone, Will Travel

Need a cellular phone while traveling overseas? Before you leave home, check out a phone rental plan from Cellhire USA Inc. For $99 per month or $8 per day, Cellhire puts a GSM (global system for mobiles, a worldwide standard) wireless phone in your hand that will work virtually anywhere in Europe, Asia or Australia.

You'll have to pay for each call, but Cellhire's rates are competitive with those of most calling cards--they're significantly lower than overseas hotel calls or locally rented phones. Bundled into the price are voice-mail service, access to Cellhire's 24-hour support center and accessories such as batteries. Should your phone break or need a new battery, Cellhire can mail new hardware to you overnight. For an extra $5 per day, you can rent a data card that allows the phone to access the Internet and e-mail via your laptop computer.

There's more: A satellite phone designed to work anywhere on the planet can be rented for $245 per week, plus a $4,000 deposit. And this month, Cellhire will begin renting handheld satellite phones that couple global connections with easy portability. They'll use the upcoming Iridium service, based on a flock of low-flying communications satellites currently in orbit by Motorola.


Q: What's all this I'm hearing about new options for getting high-speed, corporate-quality Internet access from my home?

A: It's true: Nifty new ways of getting onto the Web are hitting the market, offering blazing connection speeds that leave current PC modems--and even ISDN service--in the dust. Keep an eye out for ADSL and cable modems, and hang on to your hat--Web sites will zip onto your screen faster than you ever thought possible.

ADSL stands for asymmetric digital subscriber line, which allows phone companies to send torrents of data down the copper wires already connecting their offices to your home. Although those wires were originally designed to handle only phone calls, PC modems transfer more and more information on those same lines--most recently, 56,000 bits of digital data per second. But at this speed, standard modems have reached their theoretical speed limit.

With ADSL, however, you can cram as much as 1.5 million bps down those same wires. The only problem is that besides installing a special ADSL modem in your home, your phone company also has to install costly equipment at its end. Thus, ADSL service is coming online slowly. US West's MegaBit and Bell Atlantic's InfoSpeed are being tested in selected cities, but experts believe that by early 1999, we'll see a nationwide rush for ADSL service.

Today, subscribers pay around $500 for installation (including the ADSL modem and a setup fee), and then $20 to $120 per month to surf the Web at speeds that range from 256,000 bps to 1.5 million bps. Eventually, ADSL promises to also provide the ability to watch a long list of movies--so-called video on
demand, which means no more video rentals.

Cable modems, meanwhile, connect your PC to the Net via standard cable TV wires, at speeds of up to 1.5 million bps. Again, service is not yet universally available, but it's much more widespread than ADSL. (See "Net Work" on page 28 for more information on cable modems.) Besides fast Internet access, you'll receive specialized digital services, too, like CD-quality music and multimedia programming. When it comes to bandwidth, it seems too much is never enough.

Contact Sources

Cellhire USA Inc., (888) GSM-RENT,


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