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Comments from Frankston, Reed, and Friends

Thursday, March 04, 2004

BobF at 3:28 PM [url]:

Modems and other Relics

To protect the truly innocent I won't mention his name but ten years ago when he was eleven years old he encountered a strange object -- it looked like a telephone but had a round thing on it rather than an array of four rows of three buttons. The rotary dial used to be considered the exemplar of an obvious user interface but that was only because the pundits grew up having learned to dial a phone at an early age. Once you figure out that you must move the dial rather than just push the buttons you then need to master the precise timing and release your finger quickly otherwise you might send an extra pulse or cause a time out. Look at the video at http://movies02.archive.org/2/movies/HowtoUse1927/ for a lesson in using the new dial phone. More phone pictures at http://zebryk.com/Dreyfuss.htm

Now ten years later he found himself having to get an Internet connection. To save money his housemates opted for a dialup account. He called me (on a cell phone, not a rotary phone!) because he was having a problem. He plugged his computer in but nothing happened.

For someone who grew up assuming that you just plug your computer into an Ethernet jack the need to do more is not at all obvious. The modem is a kludge -- you take a network that is designed to carry phone calls and then you build a device to trick it into thinking it is still carrying a voice signal when it is actually data. The whole idea of building a special network for phone calls and then sneaking data past it is, well, weird. Soon the Ethernet jack itself will be a memory as we start to assume pervasive wireless connectivity. I mean real connectivity -- not the misguided effort at hotspots.

After all, today we build generic data networks. A telephone call is a minor software application -- the idea of calling a number rather than a person is a relic of the rotary era. Too bad public policy seems to be stuck in the days when we used modems to connect to timesharing systems over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

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