Seven years ago my Summer student was spending all of her money talking to her boyfriend in Sweden. It turns out he was heavily into exercise and, when his heart rate monitor watch broke, I found myself enlisted to perform a free repair. The device was repaired and modified. It now sent his heart rate to his PC which sent packets oversea to my student’s PC. A recording of his heart, matched to his pulse, played through a speaker in her pillow. This presence was re-assuring to her in some romantic dimension – unless the heart rate went up dramatically giving her cause to suspect cheating. Ah, the tell-tale-heart.
Have you ever wondered how we learned to use the telephone? Among the treasures housed at Brewster Kahle’s wonderful archive.org are early AT&T films originally shown at theaters to people in proper telephone etiquette. Breaking deeply ingrained communication habits and establishing a new social protocol was important as the expensive service started to take hold among consumers.
It is amazing that we will drop a conservation with someone in our room when the phone rings. It took decades to work out answering machines and caller id, but even so the announcement of a call is difficult for many of us to ignore.
Telephony is an important application – an incredibly important application. People have decades of experience dealing with it and they want the ability to connect with any other telephone on the planet. They also want to be able to connect to any other phone regardless of location. Mobile phones have issues with poor voice quality, byzantine service offerings, batteries and service area issues. Mobility trumps all of these issues.
Now we have a new kind of telephony - Voice over IP. VoIP, of course, is just an IP application. It can be provided over an analog-telephone-adapter as a landline replacement, it can be offered as an application running on a IP enabled mobile device and it can live as an application in a PC.
If an implementation of VoIP is to be a candidate for a universal telephone it must, at least for the next decade or so, have the ability to connect with any device on the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN – the old telephone network that most of us use). This opens up any number of costly cans of worms – regulation, international regulation, standards bodies, PSTN interconnects, intranet interconnections, ENUM, etc. A few organizations will get this right and it will be made to work at some cost. It remains to be seen if this can be done at reasonable profit levels – voice may be a killer service, but so is email.
If the mobile phone is considered the universal device the value of the landline – POTS or VoIP diminishes. An intriguing possibility is that people will address their communications needs with a variety of devices and applications - as long as one service is universal and mobile the other services can be very different.. The mobile phone becomes an enabler of useful services that don’t have to be universal. VoIP services like Skype, iChat AV, etc may not have to be universal in order to be hugely popular. Without the baggage of universal connectivity these new services can be very inexpensive and offer novel services impossible on the PSTN.
Remember our friend presence from a few paragraphs ago? Imagine building a service that delivers presence information that is tightly integrated with other modes of communication. Imagine knowing if someone is around, busy or bored and sending them a message. Hmmm – Instant Messenger. Now imagine being able to use that information to start a voice chat.
People appear to use presence based IM-ish communications differently than ring tone based communications. Text chats often run over long spans of time and have synchronous and asynchronous flavors. Users smoothly move to and from voice, share files and some share two way video. Many of your most important contacts - your friends and family - may be in your buddy list. Perhaps having them around is richer than making conventional phone calls.
These new types of services are fairly easy to implement – there aren’t as many standards bodies and the services are just IP applications rather than something deeply tied to switch feature groups. Potentially individuals can build services that spread around the world in weeks.
Presence is subtle and powerful glue for human communication. At some deep level we may be wired for it. The telephone of the last century forced us to ignore it. It can take many forms - text status messages in a buddy list, a stream of images, the acoustic ambience of a room thousands of miles away or even a partner’s heartbeat…
So a mobile phone that minimally reaches the PSTN plus using presence based communications on your computer may offer a richer experience than changing from one dedicated landline ring based telephone to another landline ring based telephone that is less expensive. It may even be less expensive.
Excuse me. My buddy list tells me that Jessica has left her meeting and is now bored. I haven’t heard her voice in a few days …