Orange is poised to become the first mobile operator in Europe to offer a commercial push-to-talk service similar to the walkie-talkie service pioneered by Nextel Communications in the US nearly a decade ago.
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The mobile arm of France Télécom intends to launch its Talk Now service in France and the UK by March, and in several other European markets by the end of the year.
The service will combine the instant voice feature with digital cellular telephony and messaging, based on GSM technology.
Like Nextel's push-to-talk service, Orange's Talk Now will allow users to speak to each other in bursts by pressing a button on the handset rather than having to dial. But Talk Now will offer more to its customers.
Users, for instance, will be able to see who is available to speak or receive a single or group message instantly via a buddy list. "You can easily make a one-to-one or one-to-group walkie-talkie call and if the person or group you're trying to reach isn't available, you can leave a voice message," said spokesman Stuart Jackson.
The service will be international, covering a large portion of Europe by the end of this year.
"Initially, we will be targeting big corporations because we see huge pent-up demand for a versatile international offering like this," Jackson said. "But we also see substantial demand from smaller groups such as plumbers, electricians and carpenters - the same groups that make up a huge percentage of Nextel's customer base."
Orange will announce fees in the coming weeks after completing tests with selected corporate customers.
Initially, the service will be available only on the Treo 600 smartphone from PalmOne, although Orange aims to make the service available on other phones during 2004.
The push-to-talk technology used in the Orange service is supplied by Californian company Kodiak Networks.
John Blau writes for IDG News Service