Sunday, June 1, 2014

And the winner is ... text. Huh.

There are a gazillion ways we can send messages to each other these days: email, chat, your favorite social medium, send a postcard, make a phone call, walk over and say hi, etc., etc..  Some of these were the stuff of science fiction when I was a kid.  In particular, I think it's finally time to say that videophones are commonplace.  Most smartphones can handle it, and the bandwidth is there in many places, though certainly not everywhere.  Even so, millions of people have the ability to make a video call should they so choose.  Probably more like hundreds of millions.  And many do.

And yet ... if you have a video-capable smartphone and you want to send someone a quick message, or you're a celebrity and you want to let your fans know when your next appearance is, or you're a bank and you want to send your client a security code for logging in, or you're a wireless carrier and you want to send your customer a balance update, or even in some cases a spammer who wants to tell someone they may already have won a fabulous prize, or for any other number of reasons, what medium do you choose?  You send a text message.

This is really not all that new an idea.  In the 1800s, for example, people would send telegrams and cables, or -- in densely populated areas, at least -- dash off short notes for messengers to carry.  The diction is even strikingly similar to the modern equivalent, and it's even more striking given that there is massively more bandwidth available these days.  Clearly the problem is not that you have to crowd everything into a 160-character SMS message.  There are any number of ways around that.  Nor are you paying by the word, as in the old days.   With all the ways that one could send a message, right up to a high-bandwidth video connection, people are choosing to text.

What parameters might determine this?

Text has about the lowest bandwidth of anything that's in regular use for communication.  If you've ever heard anyone try ... to ... repeat ... what ... they ... were ... texting ... as ... they ... typed ... it ... in, you were probably gritting your teeth.  Even if you can text as fast as you can talk, with liberal use of abbreviations like OMG and U, it's still much more mental effort than just, y'know, talking.

As a side-effect of the low bandwidth, text is notoriously bad for conveying inflection and other nuances.  Emoticons only help so much.  Was that smiley sarcastic?  Is that frowny because of what they're telling me, or because they're telling it to me?  I texted them five minutes ago and they haven't replied.  Are they busy or do they hate me?  And so forth.

Text is so-so for latency and reliability.  Messages get dropped form time to time, or hung up in the ether for minutes or hours with no indication of whether they've been delivered or not.  Even under ideal conditions, you have to wait for the other party to type in their entire message before you get to see any of it.

Where text wins, I think, is setup time, which is as minimal as can be.

There are two main types of protocol: Packet-switched and circuit switched.  In a packet-switched protocol, the sender constructs self-contained packets and sends them to the receiver.  Since each packet is self-contained, individual packets may get lost or misdirected, and there is no guarantee that just because one arrived, any other will as well.  The prototypical packet-switched system is the mail, and to this day internet protocol documents speak of "envelopes" and "addresses".

In a circuit-switched protocol, the two parties first establish a connection (as we tend to call it these days), and then communicate over it.  Once the connection is established, messages flow over it in either direction (though in some cases they must take turns), until the connection is closed, either deliberately by the participants or by some sort of external disruption.  In general, you have some indication that this has happened, and if you do have a connection established, it's quick and easy to say "did you hear that?" or whatever if there's any doubt.

The prototypical circuit-switched protocol is the telephone.  When you place a call, you are establishing a connection.  Originally, the operator would use a patch board to set up an actual electrical circuit.  Thence the name.

Connections take a while to set up.  When you call someone, you put in their number, their phone rings, they stop what they're doing and answer it, and generally say "hello" or something to make sure you know the connection is established.  And then you talk.  A video call works much the same way, and for the same reason.  It's establishing a connection.

There are currently two widely-established packet-switched media: email and text.  I say "media" here because I'm talking about how things look to the people using them, as opposed to network protocols like TCP, UDP, ICMP and so forth, and I'm leaving aside services like Snapchat, which go beyond text, because it's early days yet.

Of email and text, text is much lighter weight.  Email more or less requires a subject line, and if a simple email evolves into a conversation, each piece of the conversation general contains everything previous. It's possible to have a rapid-fire email conversation, but it's a bit awkward. It's also considerably more likely that the recipient of your email isn't going to look at it for an indefinite amount of time.  For better or worse, if you're carrying your phone, you're likely to know immediately if someone has texted you.

Put all that together, and text wins, easily, on setup time.  If you already have a window open for your recipient (a sort of mini-connection, but without the overhead of setting up both ends), you just type.  And that's it.  Even if you don't, it's generally easy to pick a recipient from your contacts.  And then you just type.  And that's it.

Because the setup is so easy, a text can easily turn into a conversation.  If the conversation gets involved, you can always text "call me" or whatever and get the benefits of a real, higher-bandwidth connection but, crucially, this is opt-in.  You only pay that price if it turns out to be worth it.

It's now been almost twenty years since Kurt Dahl predicted that in the year 2020 -- then still comfortably far in the future -- there would be no need for kids to learn to read (See the Field Notes take on it here).   Instead, "text" became a verb, one used most by the very kids who would have seemed not to need it.  As always, it's easy, and pointless, to criticize in hindsight, though it might have been a clue that the prediction itself was conveyed via text.  Certainly there are many reasons why text should still be around, and texting is probably not a particularly big one.  Nonetheless, it's interesting that a medium that would seem to have so little going for it would win out, and that this could be due not so much to the virtues of text itself, as to the economics of communication protocols.


earl said...

Note that no one can can text as fast as talk, and few can type as fast, but most can read faster than they can talk. Not quite sure how that factors in here, but it's an observation, and probably one of the reasons text (paper or phone) is around.
I text, with a flip phone, and for me it's a sort of long distance sticky note. For a conversation I want at least an email, preferably a beer.

earl said...

I do note that when I text I give more thought to wording my message for brevity without ambiguity.