The Thinker

The telephone transformed

My web cam arrived today. I ordered one for myself, along with a headset. Both plug into the serial ports of my computer. Since I am a manager, I also ordered sets for my whole team. The time has come to say goodbye to the telephone.

My team, like many nowadays, is geographically disbursed. I have three employees working with me in Reston, Virginia, with others in Portland, Oregon, Helena and Anchorage. As you might expect we already do a lot of our work using the ubiquitous telephone system. At a minimum, we have two conference calls a week, each lasting at least two hours.

Until now, the telephone system has been an essential collaboration tool. Its simplicity can be a virtue, particularly when the network is experiencing hiccups. However, the reality is that we cannot do our work solely by telephone. Like all knowledge workers, we cannot be efficient without standard Internet technologies like email and instant messaging. IM was theoretically prohibited for years in our agency, but we found we could not do work without it. The AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) program somehow ended up on all our desktop computers.

Until about six months ago, our conference calls worked like this: everyone looked at the same web page that had our agenda on it. The scribe would take notes, and save them periodically. We would refresh the web page with our browser to verify the notes and take down our action items.

About a year back, my team leader and I started playing with Microsoft NetMeeting. This Windows program lets two or more people share their computer screens live and in real time over the Internet. We found that it worked great and began using it with our conference calls. Since that time, my agency has invested in hosted virtual meeting solutions that are a bit easier to use. We have joined the numerous list of Webex customers who meet online. Note pages are no longer static. We watch the scribe as he or she types up the notes in near real time. Sometimes the scribe will switch to another application, like Microsoft Project, and we can all see the project schedule and give input to it. To work efficiently, these “live” virtual meetings depend on our fat pipes to the Internet.

The fidelity of telephones, to put it mildly, sucks. Companies like Skype are taking advantage of the Plain Old Telephone System’s (POTS) drawbacks. They figure millions of people are already sitting in front of their computers all day and many also have headsets and microphones. Therefore, Skype lets them “phone” each other over the Internet. As long as their bandwidth is high and the network latency is low, the voice over Internet experience is dramatically better than using a telephone. It is like hearing someone sitting next to you, instead of hearing a voice through a walkie-talkie. Skype offers this service for free to those who are comfortable with computer to computer voice communication. They will also be glad to connect you to someone on a landline if necessary, but that is when their meter starts running.

Skype’s business model seems to have attracted attention. Ebay is planning to purchase Skype. It recognizes that there is an emerging market for voice over the Internet. It is hardly alone. There are all sorts of companies in variants of this business. Vonage is one of many. It offers what appears to be a regular telephone service, but all conversation is done digitally over the internet.

Services like Skype suggest that we may be paying too much for telephone service. Indeed, Skype seems to be saying voice over Internet to anywhere in the world should come free with Internet access. Increasingly our computer networks are becoming faster, cheaper and more reliable. At some point in the not too distant future, the landline will become obsolete. In fact, many people have already replaced their landlines with a cell phone.

Yet even cell phone networks may be obsolete in a decade. If phone calls can be made over the wired Internet then why not over a wireless internet too? While it is possible to see web pages using a cell phone network, it is not necessarily the best way to do it. Using a cell phone network to access the web is sort of like using 9600-baud modems to access the Internet. Just as voice lines were not designed to carry data, cell phone networks are not optimized to deliver Internet content. However, a new wireless Internet infrastructure is emerging. Verizon Wireless Internet, for example, claims to be accessible to more than a third of all Americans. Of course, you need to be near a metropolitan area. With Verizon Wireless Internet, you do not need to find a local hotspot to get online. As long as you are in a broad service area, you can get 400-600 kilobits per second wireless internet access. This is comparable to DSL speeds.

In the office, where 100 megabits per second is standard, 400-600 kbps is pokey. With this kind of bandwidth, voice and even video over the network is viable. That is why I ordered computer headsets and web cams for my team. Why not? I am sure my agency pays a heap of money for our data network infrastructure, but probably does not pay for the amount of bandwidth used. VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technologies deliver voice over the Internet, but in a way that guarantees no noticeable delays. (The Internet is a packet switched network, and was not designed for synchronous communications.) Since my agency does not yet have VOIP services, voice over the Internet may at times be a bit choppy. Until VOIP arrives, we still have POTS that we can still use if needed. Nevertheless, I believe that we will prefer voice over the Internet instead, because latency should be minimal and we will appreciate the better voice quality it provides.

The web cams we purchased will also come in handy. I can use them to find out if someone is at their desk or has someone in the office. I can even see their body language. This is impossible with voice only networks.

Both web cams and computer headsets are cheap commodities. Therefore, purchasing them seemed a no-brainer for me. The web cams and headsets have not all come in yet. Once installed I anticipate that we will improve our productivity and lower our costs too. As for POTS, it is already disappearing. In fact, most long distance POTS telephone calls are already turned into a digital format for transmission. At the local telephone exchanges, the digital calls are transferred back to the familiar analog signals that Alexander Graham Bell first used.

The Baby Bells, sensing the end to their reign, are busy putting fiber optic networks in place for next generation data services. Telephone and Internet services are converging, but telephone services will simply become another feature that will be transparently handled over the Internet. The flexible and efficient digital nature of the Internet is bound to win this battle. The telephone as we know it will soon fade into obsolescence, as puzzling to the next generation as typewriters are to Generation Y.

Suits me.


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