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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

BobF at 3:37 PM [url]:

Connectivity in Days in Washington

Later this month (March 2005 for visitors from the future) we will see two important cases presented to the Supreme Court (of the US) followed by David Isenberg's Freedom to Connect.

Of the two cases the better known is MGM vs Grokster. Is file sharing a criminal act? It would be tragic if the special interests of a relatively small industry (even if very loud) were to be used to thwart basic technologies even as the same kinds of technology are being used by NASA to share the bounty of its expeditions.

Also on the same day, March 29, 2005, the court will hear the "Brand X" case. At issue is the question of the degree to which Cable TV companies can limit our choices. They have become communications carriers essentially no different from phone companies. It's not just about choosing your ISP (Internet Service Provider) -- Comcast vs AOL. The services, such as Email, are not really part of the Internet itself -- they are built on top of it. What you need is an access provider -- you can build they services yourself. It's if you had to buy an expensive flavoring in order to get water delivered to your house.

The question is whether the Internet is just another television station. Connectivity, as in the opportunity to communicate, is a fundamental right. Any unnecessary limitations are in direct violation of the US Constitution's guarantee of free speech. Unnecessary is not the same as inconvenient -- if there is a way to avoid compromising free speech then one must take that course.

Unfortunately free speech seems to frighten people as in today's concerns about "decency". I'm amazed at how difficult it is to extend such rights to media not available in 1776. Rather than using the term "media", we should talk about transports-a word with less problematic semantic loading.

At one time it made sense to view each transport as an incidental component of a service. Each service provider built a transport for a particular purpose at a high cost. Thanks to packet connectivity, the transport is now a fungible commodity apart from each service. It is no longer defensible to allow control of the transport to be used to limit our ability to communicate.

Taking advantage of the new technologies the CableCos are rolling out Video on Demand which gives each subscriber a separate video stream. There is no excuse for not using this stream for all viewing. It's far more efficient than broadcasting all signals all the time "just in case" someone may tune to it. When you change the channel it would just send a signal to the head-end to select a video stream. To the subscriber it would look just like the current system except that there would be no need to broadcast a hundred or more video streams whether or not people are watching them. This is exactly the way DSL was designed to work in the 1980's when the Telcos wanted to become video providers. Using DSL as an Internet transport demonstrates how easy it is to repurpose the stream and how much more valuable the transport becomes.

In return for their privileged position as the only transport, the telephony companies were not allowed to discriminate based on the content of phone calls. Their role began to change when CableCos provided a second pipe though at first it was a different kind of service using a one-way transport.

As long as the capacity is limited they must not be allowed to hold us hostage. The good news is that the marketplace is working to increase the capacity. I am relatively fortunate in having a choice of three carriers: RCN, Comcast and Verizon and the speed is increasing and will soon surpass the 10Mbps I was supposed to get in 1996 and Verizon is promising up to 30Mbps this year (at a premium price). It's still not the 100Mbps common in Japan but is a step in the right direction. But progress has been slow because it threatens the carriers' ability to take advantage of artificial scarcity. No wonder they are actively trying to prevent others from offering local connectivity.

One difficulty is that the industries are mired the rules that defined them. The FCC still has different rules for cable and telephone companies but Mike Powell and others are advocating an "Internet" policy that would provide simple rules for those that provide transport. This would provide a real incentive for companies to take the initiative and offer unfettered transport. Such a policy would achieve the goals of "Brand X" and create huge economic value in providing opportunities for new business and services.

David Isenberg's "Freedom to Connect" starts the very next day, March 30th. There is already enough to talk about but the timing of these cases will add to what already promises to be a very exciting event but I hesitate to suggest you attend since I'm overwhelmed just looking at the program and the list of participants. I hope David doesn't learn from the CableCos and Telcos because he could stretch the conference out for a whole month and charge a high "value" price obfuscated by the complexity a myriad of tiny twisted charges.

See you there.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

BobF at 3:58 PM [url]:

Making Better Use of Voice Response Systems

Going through a long phone menu can be quite painful. Switching to using voice isn't much of an improvement if you still have to traipse through the same menus.

The major advantage of a voice system over a numeric keypad is the ability to support a far larger vocabulary. This can be especially useful for those who can learn paths.

One example is the United Airlines system I just used -- instead of asking a series of questions I want to be able to just give my frequent flyer number and a verifier (name or password) and tell it what I want instead of asking a series of questions with confirmation after each step. I could say "domestic reservations" (which used to be simpler when I just pressed "2") instead of asking what I want, and whether I want to use my mileage points and whether it's domestic or not.

While these systems tend to be designed for the "no learning" occasional user, a system for frequent flyers, as an example, should take advantage of the caller's stake in learning how to make better use of the system. I wouldn't mind going to a web page that contains shortcuts and suggestions.

As these systems evolve I hope the designers experiment and learn how to make the systems more effective (but not "friendlier" and not "placement opportunities"). Instead of giving a twelve digit number, I could use code words (assigned by the system) which take four syllables instead of a dozen or two.

While the systems might be sold as a way to save money, they are an opportunity for creating far better systems than we have today. As ATM's and the Web have shown, a good system can be better than speaking to a person though we should still have people available for unanticipated problems. The latter problem was very obvious to me when I tried to find the 800 for my ISP's dialup support and was told to call back on Monday or to use their website.

Just as the web evolved because individuals could experiment and be creative I expect these systems to evolve as tools, such as Voice XML make allow for quick iterations rather than requiring complex deployment plans.

For more, see the Archive.

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