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Summary:

The linked computer files we call the Internet can take many forms, but real-time communication is not one of them. Communication engages participants more intimately than linking computer files, and moving from hypertext to “hypercomm” will require the infocomm industry to cope with privacy, authentication and trust.

A number of key Internet innovations trace back to the notion of a text file with links to other text files, aka “hypertext.” Tim Berners-Lee got the world wide web rolling by using these “hyperlinks” to access information located on computers distributed around the world. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page counted hyperlinks among distributed information to rank search results. The linked computer files we call the Internet can take many forms (e.g. blogs, podcasts, photos and video), but real-time communication is not one of them.

Search remains an inefficient means of finding contact information. The online version of telephone directories offer only marginally better utility than the dead-tree version. Clicking a link has so far not replaced dialing telephone numbers. Address books remain a burden to create and keep current. Communication starts with the same frustrating period of looking for a telephone number and frequently ends with the same frustrating period of phone tag that existed before the Internet.

Communication engages participants more intimately than linking computer files. Moving from hypertext to “hypercomm” will require the infocomm industry to cope with privacy, authentication and trust. People prefer less communication in the absence of control. The status quo of relatively weak communication tools will persist as long as people cannot control who rings their phone. No one would be interested in buying a BMW if they did not control who gets into it. Caller ID falls woefully short in this regard.

The arrival of social networks may prove a turning point. The reluctance to post personal information diminished as soon as social networks applied friends lists (e.g. hyperlinks between people) as the basis for accessing web pages. Friends lists combined with a mechanism for linking people to their respective communication devices has the potential to make click-to-call practical. Web page links can hide the mechanics of setting up connections between devices after someone goes through the one-time step of provisioning their telephone number. If everyone provisions their telephone number as a click-to-call link, then sharing the links replaces the static information in address books.

A hypercomm application also needs a presence component. The binary online vs. offline associated with IM clients may not suffice. People need control over presence by context (e.g. topic, person and time of day). This means finding the right balance between automation and manual control that minimizes the burden and maximizes utility. In the absence of presence awareness, hypercomm applications will have a hard time moving beyond the messaging apps that already exist on social networking sites.

Linking people and their communication devices creates opportunities to search against the identifying information in social networking profiles. A search for “San Francisco” might return click-to-call links for people with the city listed somewhere in their profiles. The results might be ranked by a relevance criteria, but the mere existence of the search capability will motivate people to post more information to their profiles. Improving the prospect for discovery turns out to be a good way of encouraging people to post more information.

The Internet jumped to 10,000 end points from a mere 500 the year after the arrival of the web browser. Imagine a world where accessing web pages required “dialing” an IP address, and you have some idea the revolution that would be unleashed should hypercomm become a reality.

  1. We have implemented many of the ideas and features suggested in this post and is operational for about a year now. What is more, it is architected so that it can be distributed as well. Look for some major step forward during Von.x.

    GigaOm may have decided that it was not worth writing about this, but slowly and surely we will be noticed. :-)

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  2. Seems to me you’ve this is the direction Google is going with their recent purchase of GrandCentral. When the addressbook fully integrates with gmail, we’ll be a long way down the path you suggest.

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  3. Michael,

    GrandCentral does offer click-to-call from the address book, but it still needs to create more distance from telephone numbers. The whole premise still revolves around a telephone number albeit a single telephone number. The world needs an architecture that makes the telephone number disappear.

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  4. Daniel:

    Can you give us a hint on the architecture that will get rid of telephone numbers? After all the IP network architecture hasn’t gotten rid of IP addresses and MAC addresses. Aren’t they comparable?

    On another tack, GC provides click-to-call capability. There is an architecture that allows users to avoid phone numbers if they agree to give up on the 12 button phone. You keep teasing us about this particular point and I am waiting for you to openly implore the industry to adopt capable (dare I say “intelligent”) end-points. Better yet an announcement that FWD will utilize is architecture. I hope some day soon I will read such a post uner Here comes Trouble banner.

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  5. Aswath:

    The IP address and telephone numbers work fine to identify hardware, but they do not belong in the UI flow.

    Click-to-call sets up a call one leg at a time and bridges the two legs. Your device rings and you pick it up. No need to dial anything (assuming you are sitting in front of a computer.)

    Absent a computer, I imagine a voice recognition implementation of the old operator mode. Pick up – “Call Tom” …Tom’s phone rings. Social networks help in this regard by providing a finite set of names the voice recognition must identify.

    People can devise more interesting ideas, but the prospect for change seems limited until we agree on a goal of banning telephone numbers.

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  6. I have two (but related) major disconnect with you. The first is in all your posts you touch on the need for a different kind of device. But you do not go far. You go great distance dissing incumbent telecoms, but do not challenge IP Communications community to build end devices. Not only that you seem to tolerate the industry that is building the Middle. I cam only imagine the day when you as CEO of FWD issuing an RFP for a phone in the form factor of a cordless phone that uses Internet connectivity for “signalling” independent of whether the media goes over PSTN or IP. After all pulver.com issued an RFP to motivate the industry to agree on a single version of SIP and a wideband codec. So it can call for a “computer-less” computer phone. (Tap on the shoulder – don’t go for a wifi phone, DECT is much better. It allows both PSTN and VoIP. The current version includes wideband codec.)

    The other disconnect is with your conclusion that we have to wait for all of us to agree on banning telephone numbers. I think if we make available devices like I mentioned previously, then those that want to avoid using phone numbers can go ahead with the help of such devices. The whole world will follow in due course. We all love Internet; one unique characteristic of Internet is that people did “The” way in a corner and if it is a good way, it slowly got adopted universally. Why can’t we try that for voice? Why do we start to think differently?

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  7. Social Networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) will not be successful in this regard until they change their ToS.

    Why? Facebook’s ToS states that accessing your Facebook account is a “privilege” that Facebook can revoke arbitrarily at any time, without any sort of “due” process concept. Also Facebook, et.al. maintain what is entered is “theirs” to do with what they want.

    Without this kind of protection, how many intelligent users will really trust social networks with all the knowledge of how to access their friends?

    Right now you might not bother to remember your friends’ phone number because your phone does. Even if your carrier cuts off your service you still have your friends’ contact information.

    What happens if Facebook does the same?

    Even if you believe in the “I am too small to be noticed and affected” principle… would you / should you take the risk?

    Not me….

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  8. Daniel:

    Your post is interesting, but I’d love to hear some specifics. What apps today currently enable hypercomms? Please shoot me an e-mail and maybe we can set up time for a call today.

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  9. Aswath:

    We agree devices represent the key to change as demonstrated in the case of cellular (e.g. iPhone, Android, etc). The question remains what we do while waiting for interesting SIP devices. I believe there exists opportunity on the plumbing side of the equation to enable cool apps that do not necessarily require the SIP iPhone equivalent. The elimination of telephone numbers represents one idea of where we might find these cool apps.

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