Speak Freely History

A brief history of Speak Freely


Back in 1989, Brian C. Wiles had an idea to create a software product that would allow PC gamers to talk to their opponents while playing video games against each other over their dialup modems. His idea was called RASCAL which was short for Remote Audio Sound Card Application Link. He began to develop it and by the end of 1989 was sending voice over Ethernet networks using the KA9Q Network Operating System. Technically, RASCAL was the first Voice over IP application. Earlier experiments with voice over packet networks were done in the 1970's, but they were done over other protocols, not the Internet Protocol or IP. Brian hadn't heard about the earlier experiments and had to come up with his solution entirely on his own. (Google and even the web didn't exist yet.)

At the time, audio compression was in its infancy, and there wasn't yet a way to get the voice packets small enough to be sent over the slow dialup modems of the day. So, Brian was able to use RASCAL to send his voice over Ethernet, but his dream of multiplayer shoot-em-up games with opponents actually talking to each other would have to wait.

NetFone Is Born

When John Walker, founder of Autodesk, moved to Europe in May of 1991 to help organize Autodesk's European Software Centre, he realized that one thing he'd miss is being able to listen in on design meetings and talk with individual developers without running up huge phone bills. Autodesk had a dedicated 56 Kb leased line between headquarters in California and the European Software Centre which was used primarily for transmitting software updates but which was nearly idle in the overlap hours between Europe and California. Since all of our software developers had Sun workstations which came with audio hardware, John decided to see if he could put the pieces together so he could talk and/or broadcast meetings over the leased line. Since raw Sun mu-law audio requires 64 Kb and he only had 56 Kb to work with, John hammered in a decimation/expansion scheme to reduce the bandwidth to 32 Kb. (It remains today, in a more refined form, as "Simple compression".) John knew very little about audio encoding at the time--obviously ADPCM would have been a far better choice, but he was ignorant of it and was not sure a public domain implementation of it existed in 1991. John first experimented with an RPC implementation which worked fine over a LAN but was hopeless over the leased line, which was routed over a satellite link and had high latency; John finally settled on UDP as the only viable protocol, a decision independently reached by the designers of RTP years later.

Anyway, the first release of what was then called NetFone was posted on July 11, 1991. Release 2 was posted on September 12, 1991 and consisted of cleanups and bug fixes.

NetFone Development Continues

That's where things stood until Release 3 on December 13, 1994, which corrected some compiler warnings on the ANSI compiler which replaced Sun's original K&R cc.

John didn't really get back into development mode until the summer of 1995, when he discovered the public domain implementation of GSM which is still used in Speak Freely. This, along with Phil Karn's DES (which he had used in a number of other programs over the years), and the Silicon Graphics audio drivers supplied by Paul Schurman made up NetFone release 4, posted on August 2, 1995. This was the first version able to run on a typical Internet connection as opposed to a leased line, albeit still limited to Sun and Silicon Graphics workstations.

Collaboration Begins

When Brian heard of John's efforts on NetFone, he became intrigued and realized that someone else had answered the question of how to get voice over modems working. The two developers began to share ideas and collaborate on NetFone from then on. Eventually, some pieces of RASCAL were incorporated into NetFone, but eventually, the original RASCAL source code was lost to a hard drive crash.

NetFone release 5 followed on August 28, 1995 and added IDEA encryption as well as fixes to features in release 4.

NetFone Becomes Speak Freely

Netfone 5.1 was released on September 2, 1995, and was the first to include the log.doc file. The program was renamed Speak Freely as of release 5.2 on September 21, 1995 and all subsequent development is documented in the log.

The Windows version began as a port of NetFone 5 (aka 5.0) with its initial release on August 23, 1995. Since then, we continued to add features and continue to do so to this day.

Last Modified: June 26, 1999 by Brian C. Wiles