Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On the history of the telephone

Here's a brief but hopefully not-too-distorted history of the telephone:

In the late 1800's various people hit on the idea of using electricity to transmit sound over wires. It's not entirely clear who did what first, and there is quite a bit of litigation at the time, but in 1875 Bell is granted a patent for "Transmitters and Receivers for Electric Telegraphs". By that point, the basic premise is in place: extend the existing communications technology (wires) to carry a new medium (sound).

At first, telephones are confined to early adopters in places like national capitals and Deadwood, South Dakota (there's a reason they called the dot-com madness a "gold rush"). Connections are originally point to point but exchanges are introduced very soon, providing a means of scaling the network up. To make a call via an exchange, you call the operator there, who then connects you to the person you're trying to call -- or to another exchange, ideally closer to your desired party, if that person doesn't belong to yours.

Adoption proceeds rapidly and vast fortunes are made, but full saturation takes decades even in industrialized countries. Beyond the basic technological leap of transmitting analog sound instead of bits, technological progress is incremental; better phones, switches to automate the exchanges, standards for phone numbers, area codes and so forth.

As the technology matures, reliability becomes a concern. Other features, such as conference calls, call waiting, touch-tone dialing and such are nice to have, but can be dispensed with as long as you can just pick up a phone and expect it to work. The possible exceptions I'd cite would be the answering machine and voice mail, which are more in the "how did we ever do without that?" category. Caller ID is another possible candidate. It definitely changes the interaction, but if I had to pick I'd probably go with voice mail. Your mileage may vary.

Obviously there are several similarities and contrasts to be drawn between the telephone and the web. One that I'd like to draw out here is the pattern of a world-changing new invention followed by incremental refinements.

The idea of serving hypertext over an internet aimed more at file transfer and remote logins shook things up. Compared to that, Web 2.0 concepts like tagging, microformats and social networking seem more like refinements. Useful refinements, to be sure, and ones whose combined effect will help make the web in 2010 noticeably different from the 2000 edition, but I don't see them as revolutionary. One could make a case that improvements in bandwidth (I won't say "broadband" because current broadband will look like a joke in ten years) will have more effect.

Granted, if you put enough incremental improvements together you end up with a qualitative change. Long distance calling today is an entirely different thing from the "have my operator call your operator" scenario I described above, and as a result the world is in a certain sense a smaller place. Nonetheless, I would expect the future history of the web to have relatively few "on this date ..." major moments and more "by the 2010's ..." summaries of progress.

1 comment:

David Hull said...

Note to self: tagging, microformats, social networking ... One of these things is not like the others.