(Note: Amy Wohlís responses are written in bold and are reprinted by permission.)

 

Ms. Wohl,

 

I have been enjoying your columns since you began your Opinions service. In fact, I've been enjoying your opinions for much longer, through your appearances at Comdex and your articles in other publications.

 

I would like to respond to your June 20th column. Your analysis covers many of the possible applications for wireless text, but it misses the application that seems to be most promising in commercial potential and most viable using current technology: instant messaging.

 

Like most articles about the potential of wireless, the column focuses on fighting the last war: how do we move the wired Internet experience onto an underpowered, slow, small handheld device? The question almost answers itself. Current screens are too small for Web browsing. Connection speeds are too slow for data transfer. Memory and processing power are too limited for significant local applications. Keypad design makes data entry too difficult. One by one, the limitations raise barriers to almost all important applications, at least until magic bullets like 3G and better handsets come along to save the day. Someday.

 

But take a close look at instant messaging. In the wired Internet, IM is a well-accepted means of communication - just ask any 15-year-old. It's also gaining acceptance in the corporate world, through authorized and unauthorized use of personal IM products like AOL Instant Messenger and through corporate groupware products like Sametime and Groove. IM offers a middle ground between the immediacy of a phone call and the persistence of email, and allows people to treat conversation as an integrated part of their workday rather than as an interruption. IM could become a communication tool on a par with the telephone, but for one problem: when you leave your desk, you can't take it with you. Because there are no mobile clients, IM's reach extends only as far as the desktop - much like the telephone network before cellular. What the world needs, to make IM a text alternative to the voice telephone, is a good mobile IM client.

 

Mobile IM is the killer app for wireless text, and it's within reach using today's technology. Unlike other wireless applications, IM does not depend on the transfer of large amounts of data. Messages tend to be small, and presence information is even smaller. Most IM content is text, which can be displayed acceptably well on cellular phone screens. The application to send, receive and display messages and buddy list information should be small and simple, well within the native capabilities of modern cell phones. And as for text entry, corporate executives (many of whom are very comfortable using Graffiti on their Palms) might be able to learn a bit about message shorthand from their teenage sons and daughters. Or they could buy Treos, or BlackBerry phones, or one of the many text-optimized cell phones that will spring up if wireless text catches on.

 

And talk about synergy. Mobile IM would benefit both mobile and IM providers. Message delivery over the air would offer the telcos a new revenue source, whether they charged on a subscription basis or per-message, and would probably lead to increased voice traffic as people learn to shift conversations back and forth between text and voice. And IM, which has already grown explosively on the desktop, would have a whole new client base. An IM service that spans PCs and mobile devices could give text messaging parity with voice communications, and could see adoption rates similar to those the telcos experienced when they introduced cellular telephone services.

 

There are companies that are already well on their way to developing wireless IM services for the American market. Check out the work being done by Openwave, whose products will run on 2.5G networks, and Comverse.

 

And for precedent, just look anywhere else in the world. European telcos added SMS to their GSM phone standard as an afterthought, as a way of distributing official announcements from telcos, and messaging became a dominant consumer application in that market. Messaging was also the breakthrough application for NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service in Japan. It happened there; it can happen here. Soon, I hope.

 

††††††††††† Rich Stillman

††††††††††† Waystation Partners

 

 

I think Richard brings up an important idea.Itís one that I have by-passed, largely because Iím not an IM user.I think most people who use or want to use IM in business are personal IM users Ė Iím not.At work I sit at my computer whenever Iím in the office and I use email as my preferred method of communication.I really use it like IM but without the interruption of letting people know whether Iím available or not.I chose to reply or not to.At home, I only sit down at the computer once or twice, usually for short periods of time Ė not a typical IM profile.I think a good question is whether there are lots of business users who want to use the technology.I donít know that answer.

Amy

Amy,

Thanks for printing my note, and for your comments. I agree that most people who are using IM in business have come to it through personal use, generally through exposure by their children. But I really do believe that it is a different animal than email, and the presence information you are concerned about is a big reason why.

 

For the sender of a message, presence provides an indication that the recipient is both available and willing to receive the message immediately. For a potential recipient, careful use of presence status permits control over availability. An advanced IM client with multiple buddy lists can make you appear available to family only, or personal contacts only, or business contacts only, or any group you choose to define. Unlike a ringing phone, there is no requirement or expectation that an IM be answered immediately, even if you've advertised that you're available. And the UI of instant messaging leads to a different kind of exchange than that of email. The ideas we're passing back and forth through this series of email messages, for example, would be very different if we were having this conversation via IM. Different content would be exchanged, and our ideas would likely build on each other's in a more gradual and collaborative way than they are through this series of emails.

 

But let's talk mobile. The features of IM, if integrated into cell phones, can have a significant effect on mobile communication. Presence advertising by itself can improve the lot of the typical cell phone user. Without it, we dial all our phone calls blindly. The person we're trying to reach could be away, or out of range, or in a meeting with their phone turned off, or on the highway about to be cut off by a bus. A phone-based buddy list, especially if integrated with the phone's address book, can allow for more efficient placement of voice calls and less voice mail phone tag, which means less wasted time, less air time used by both sender and recipient, and smaller bills. Short text messages - even just "is this a good time to call?" - would make many voice calls unnecessary, and the remaining ones far more welcome. Unlike voice, short messages could be processed by the recipient at his or her convenience, rather than at the sender's. This is the major advantage of IM - it provides much of the immediacy of voice conversation, but returns to the recipient some measure of the control over interruptions that traditional voice communication puts almost completely

in the hands of the initiator.

 

The use of IM in business, and on mobile devices, is so new that no social conventions have yet been developed for its proper use. If business IM develops in a way that respects the value of time for both the sender and receiver of messages, it could fundamentally change the way we communicate.

 

The user of a telephone gives up far more control over privacy and time than the user of instant messaging. When the phone rings, our choices are limited. We can stop what we're doing and pick it up right now, based on imperfect or nonexistent information about the caller's identity and reason for calling. We can listen to the caller's voice mail message in real time later. Or we can call the other party back at some time in the future that is potentially inconvenient for them, continuing the cycle of wasted time and interruption. I firmly believe that we accept this situation today only because we grew up with the telephone and its shortcomings. Short messaging and presence advertising, particularly when combined with the advanced address book features of cell phones, can vastly improve the lives of mobile voice users and provide a bridge between phones and the text-based world. It truly can be the killer app for mobile.

 

†††††††Rich

 

 

Rich, thanks for your long and thoughtful explication.Again, I can understand you intellectually, but not personally.

 

I have never gotten in the habit of letting people reach me on my cell phone.I use it for placing calls.People who want to reach me call my office and leave a message there for me.I don't want to be interrupted and I have found a cell phone a highly imperfect mechanism for guaranteeing that a message will actually be delivered.My office staff works really well.

 

Obviously there are some people who have my cell phone number (my assistant for one; my husband, for another).When I have my cell phone turned on (or when I leave it on by prearrangement), they may call me.

 

I have a wireless email device so I can get email on the fly if I choose to.As I said, with most of my close correspondents -- experienced and old-time emailers all -- we use email much like you use IM, sending brief, frequent emails back and forth.One of those correspondents and I have had eight back and forth messages in the last few hours.

 

I think IM could work fine for people who live on their cell phones (just as I live on my email), I'm just not sure that this is the killer business application that is going to make the telcos and other SPs rich.

 

Amy,

 

I think we're largely in agreement about how we approach incoming contacts. I don't have a cell phone, and I never have, but I've been carrying a portable email device (various models from Motorola, using SkyTel's service) since 1997. When dealing with incoming phone calls, I often rely on caller ID and voicemail screening. And I generally launch IM clients only when I want to get in contact with someone else, which is typically only a couple of days a week. So I don't fit the profile of a typical IM user either. My interest in IM is more academic than practical - I've studied and written about it, from both technical and social viewpoints. In doing so, I've used it enough to get an idea of its potential. When integrated well into an overall communications system, IM can provide the bridge between traditionally text-based computer communications and voice-based phone systems. But it can also make the world of person-to-person communication more civilized by allowing people to control their availability to others. Both of these opportunities have killer-app potential.

 

Presence advertising and short text messaging can allow the restoration of some pre-telephone social conventions. Before the telephone, the closest thing to a call was a personal visit - Tenessee Williams' gentleman caller didn't pick up the phone, he showed up at the door. Calling cards and parlors at home, business cards and receptionists at work, and written correspondence in general allowed people to engage in an elaborate social dance to make the case for being seen and to decide who they wanted to see, and on what terms.

 

The telephone gradually changed all that. Particularly after the departure of the human operator, telephones allowed people to contact anyone they wanted, at any time. This gave the initiator of a contact far more control over access than his or her subject. This shift was slow, and not completely unopposed - Mark Twain refused to have a phone installed in his house unless its bell was removed. Today, the fact that virtually everybody leaves their wireline phones on around the clock - and even the importance of late-night prank calling as an expression of rebellion by children - are indications of how universally this change has been accepted, and the strength of the social contract against inappropriate use of the telephone. Hardly anyone alive today remembers when it was any other way.

 

Today, we deal with a high number of incoming calls, especially unsolicited ones coming from people taking unfair advantage of that social contract. This flood has forced people to improvise new barriers to unwanted contacts. An office staff that filters calls is effective, but not an option available to most people. Even in business settings, central switchboards have largely vanished and direct-dial phone numbers are the norm. At home, caller ID and answering machines are about the only tools widely available for filtering calls. The information that the caller ID service provides is generally pretty bad, and answering machines, like corporate voicemail, still exact a cost in the time required to listen to messages. No one as far as I know has analyzed the value to consumers of the time lost to these interruptions, but at least one group has expressed their opinion in a most explicit way - the customers who bought the TeleZapper for $50 in an attempt to eliminate the problem at its source.

 

IM is a more effective approach to re-erecting the old, and now even more necessary, social filters. First, presence: If your lights aren't on, or you've hung out the "do not disturb" sign, I won't ring the bell. The fact that I can check the presence of many people at once is, to me, a far more benign technological improvement than the telephone's traditional ability to permit me to wake you up at 9PM when you've gone to bed early with the flu. Second, text messaging: I can ask you if it's OK to call. You can say no, or refuse to answer, or wait to read my message until you have a moment, or shunt the messages of people not on your "watch list" to email where you can deal with them later. Again, a vast improvement over the fifteen second decision window, with imperfect information, that a ringing telephone allows.

 

Filtering tools become far more important for mobile phones than for wireline, if only because mobility vastly increases people's availability. Many corporate cultures already expect to have constant access to their employees. Ignore a ringing phone during work hours - or sometimes even on personal time - and you may have some 'splaining to do when you get back to the office. Even more companies have a well-established voicemail culture, and many studies have demonstrated that a substantial part of an employee's workday is spent just listening to voicemail. The cost of air time when checking voicemail during business hours from a cellular phone is also substantial, and more tangible and easier to measure than lost productivity.

 

Email offers a different set of problems and solutions. As critical as email has become, most people are unreachable when they walk away from their network-attached computer. This has forced companies to adopt voicemail solutions, which are far less efficient but which offer one overriding advantage - universal access from any telephone. It has also caused companies to spend small fortunes buying their traveling workers laptops, many of which are used for only one thing - checking email - and only a few times a day, reducing the value of email by delaying its delivery.

 

Integrating IM into a voice network addresses so many of these problems that simple ROI analysis should make it a no-brainer for many corporations. Important voice calls are acted upon; less important ones are prioritized; junk calls are ignored. Text messages can be queued if the phone is turned off, and require far less worker time to process than voicemail. These advantages alone make IM worth considering for corporations. Agents that can check and forward email based on filtering rules, like BlackBerry Enterprise Server or Wolfetech's beta service, can mobilize email much as cellular mobilized voice, giving email much of the immediacy of voice - and that would be big news.You mentioned that you use this solution yourself, so I assume you have gotten some value from it.

 

For carriers, IM offers several possible new revenue sources. The first and easiest is the corporate service described above. But the larger, more long-term opportunity is the mobilization of Internet-based email and IM services. Instant messaging, currently in its infancy compared to email, would be a far more viable service if every cell phone and text pager in America could become a peer in an IM conversation. The corporate IM providers, like Lotus and Groove, should be very interested, as should the traditional IM service providers. Of course, the wireless carriers stand to profit by charging for every message sent. Given the likely acceptance of IM as part of corporate communications in the future, this will also be a big deal.

 

As far as making the telcos rich, we might actually pay attention to the example of the Europeans and Japanese. In the beginning, NTT DoCoMo believed that they'd make a killing by serving web pages to mobile phone customers, and that has turned out to be true. But relatively few companies initially provided i-mode services, and to DoCoMo's surprise, their first runaway success was messaging. I-mode messaging started out as a teenage phenomenon, but spread to corporations as the value was recognized, and as the oldest of the early-adopter teens grew up and entered the work force. In Europe, SMS was added to the GSM standard to give phone companies a way of broadcasting messages to their customers, and then only because the bandwidth existed and couldn't be used for anything else. Today, consumer use of this accidental feature generates as much revenue as voice for European mobile phone companies. Yes, the United States is different from Europe and Japan, as the differences in adoption of the Internet has shown. But for something as fundamental as person-to-person communication, I think we're far more similar. Comparing our adoption rates for cellular voice with those of Europe and Japan will show that.

 

The question is, is mobile text more like mobile voice or like wireline text? I believe there's a continuum, and that text applications that come closer to the person-to-person functions of voice - IM, email forwarding, presence advertising - have a far better chance of repeating the acceptance history of cellular phones than those, like WAP and information services, that attempt to duplicate the wireline Internet.

 

There is nothing more fundamental than person-to-person communication. Cell phones became a massive success by mobilizing voice communication. Shouldn't there be similar opportunity in mobilizing text communication?

 

††††††††††† Rich

 

P.S. I do apologize for the length of these messages. I now consider the dead horse thoroughly beaten.