Back in the olden days (pre-1990), when you needed to talk to someone, you pretty much had two choices; call them up or meet them in person, which usually meant one or both parties having to travel, even if it was just to the next office. And if you needed to transfer information to that person, you also had two choices; meet with them and hand over the doumentation or mail it to them. I’m ignoring faxes here because I’m talking about large amounts of data, and nobody wants to receive a 100 page fax. Faxing is also basically a way to mail documents over the phone line – much faster (usually) but not necessarily more efficient.
That was the way business was done and it worked pretty well, but there were some issues. In the case of the telephone and the face to face meeting, it required that both parties be engaged at the same time (in networking we call this synchronous communication, hence the little S after them in the list below. The A stands for asynchronous), but the transfer of information was pretty fast. Another downside for using the telephone was that they were locked into place. If the person you were trying to reach had left their desk, even for as little as a minute, you might miss them, adding delays and frustration. Mail was nicer because it could be done on your own schedule but it wasn’t as fast. You had no control over the speed at which it was delivered, even when using inter-office mail.
Next came Email, and at first everyone rejoiced. Here was a quick way to transfer information, often quite a lot of it, that could be done on your schedule and picked up on theirs. You still didn’t have a lot of control over delivery speeds, but it was many times faster than the mail (usually). One big issue with email was actually caused by the telephone. Throughout the 50′s and 60′s, as more and more people installed phones, people wrote fewer and fewer letters and so got out of the practice of writing. As a result, many many emails either said or implied things their authors didn’t intend.
Along about 1990, the first instant messaging applications became mainstream, largly due to the popularity of AOL. These had the advantage that you could either hold a conversation with someone in real-time, or if they weren’t at their computer, it would wait patiently on their screen until they were ready to respond. There is still the disadvantage that you are limited in the amount of information you can share, although that gets better all the time, but on the plus side it is easier to clear up misunderstandings. Usually.
Timeline of business interactions
Face to Face (S)
Mail (postal or inter-office) (A)
Telephone (land line) (S)
Instant Messaging (S or A)
Telephone (cell) (S)
SMS (texting) (A)
At about the same time IM was entering the public awareness, so were cell phones. The disadvantages to the first phones were obvious – they were suitcases. Usually about the size of a small briefcase, they weren’t so much carriable as luggable. Even so, they allowed you to stay connected to the office and/or your friends and family, as long as you were in a metropolitan area. The technology rapidly improved of course and now you can have a phone that you wear on your wrist, or one so small you can actually lose it in your pocket. With the advent of the modern mobile phone (and the build-out of the cellular network) you can be reasonably assured of reaching anyone, anywhere, at any time. The advent of portability doesn’t change the synchronous nature of telephones though, both parties have to be available at the same time for the conversation.
SMS, or texting, was the cell phone companies attempt to allow you to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, but let you do it on your own terms albeit only 160 characters at a time. (Hmmm that number seems somewhat familiar, wonder why Twitter decided on 140?) SMS is great; you can send a message whenever you need to, and the recipient can respond whenever they are available. But there aren’t any delivery guarantees on SMS and early implementations sometimes made it diffucult to keep conversations separate. Modern smart phone do a much better job, but I don’t believe that I know anyone that hasn’t answered a question from friend A but sent the response to friend B. Sometimes with humerous consequences, sometimes not so much.
Now we have telepresence which sounds like science fiction but is actually the natural evolution of what has come before. Telepresence brings us back around to face to face meetings but doesn’t require us to be actually physically present. Currently the state of the art in comunication, telepresence applications (Skype is a consumer example) allow two or more people to carry on a conversation, complete with facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, without being in the same room. Or even on the same continent. In fact, they don’t even need to be on the same planet!
What about the future? All we can say for sure is that it is going to be interesting. One likely scenario is mobile telepresence. We already have a limited version of it, using Skype (or Facetime) on your mobile device. Now that Google has announced their Google Glasses project, we can reasonably assume that items like that could be combined with other Augmented Reality systems (I think I’ll go more in-depth about augmented reality in a future post) to give a sort of early version of the Star Trek holodeck. Imagine going to an interview without leaving your home in the US, but still seeing the same things and same people as if you were actually in the office in Shanghai. Or speaking to a room full of (virtual) people, all of whom have a seat in the center of the front row. Imagine watching a play, or an opera, or a concert like that. Always getting the best seat in the house, all while never leaving yours.