Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Down with the phone number tyranny

Martin Geddes is the last amongst a long line of heroes before him to have a whack at killing the phone company. The phone company is like the fabulous Hydra of Lerna. For each of its head heads that is decapitated, another one or even two more spring forth. In addition, like the Hydra beast which is half snake, the phone company has a very long tail…

Besides the underlying saga, this post also join in the growing chorus advocating what Ken Camp summarize as
… presence and availability, or context, or whatever they become as facets of our digital identity and persona will be a huge piece of the evolution of unified communications.
Martin speaks of context as a driver for communication. I would say that context is the only driver of communication. We never communicate outside of a context, and whatever media we use must be able to take the context into account. But this has nothing to do with the technical context Martin describes. His context is just the mere legacy of the antiquated operating systems and user interface in use today. The context driving the communication is a temporal cross reference intersecting several social groups and encompassing one or several spatial environments. The post is interesting as it goes on trying to develop on concepts tightly related to presence technologies.

I like the way he describes how Outlook may look like if it were "socially" enabled, but I don't think he has grasped the full spread of presence technologies in upcoming communication systems. Describing an "address book" the way he does shows he simply did not take into account that the actual communication context is in effect part of one's own presence. So tomorrow's "address book" should only show what is relevant in this context.
There is another point where the post slightly misses the target. Or maybe this is a matter of wording. When talking of "collaborative" I am more inclined to use it in regards to inter-individuals collaboration, whereas Martin seems to emphasize the inter-applications collaboration. Beyond this semantic digression, I have previously described my frustration in front of current user interfaces, and this has since been further developed by Giacomo Vacca when he also deplores the crude state of these interfaces and says

It's not about how presence technologies provide information on users' availability, but rather how much presence information can be truly dynamic and reflect users' habits and personalities.
To illustrate my point, let's go back to the phone communication. The success of the phone lies in its ability to mediate the most important mean of communication common to any human being: voice. And voice has the intrinsic capability to convey intonations as well as articulated semantic meaning. As such, a voice communication system providing a decent sound quality will compete on fair ground with face-to-face communications where only sound is available. This quality makes the phone system unique, as it introduce almost no perturbation in the medium. And this quality also makes the phone system’s success. Every other means of communication introduce much higher perturbations in the medium.

I believe the phone is inexorably moving toward a wireless mobile device. This is a no return journey, and in a few years we won't see any fixed phone left. Hopefully, at the same time, the phone device interface would have evolved well beyond using

  • a touch tone keypad that was the ultimate invention in the early sixties
  • a display trying to simulate a miniature windowing system that became common in the early eighties.
Just look at all these poor mobile phone victims running in every airports' corridors, bent forward, pulling their roller bags with one hand while furiously thumb hammering their mobile phone with the other. Don't you feel they look strangely like the common representation of our Neanderthal cousins on the human evolution charts?

To conclude, I agree with Martin that we need to have a more integrated experience when we communicate, for the simple reason that technology should get out of the way. But, unfortunately, every example he gives still bears a strong influence from today's (or rather yesterday's) devices limitations. The most important of it being the use of phone numbers. The current phone devices are so closely associated with numbers that they are de-facto unfriendly to any other means of communication found on the Internet. A keyboard is already unfriendly, but a keyboard where you have to press three times the same key to obtain a single character is hundred times more unfriendly. We are so used to this approach for voice calls that we seem unable to think outside this limitation. See how Martin only describes "address books" as repertories for phone numbers…

Until the two words "phone" and "number" have been taken far apart, I believe we will unfortunately still see a lot of the phone company, both inside peoples’ minds and outside.

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