Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Can't We Just Talk?

Communications. You hear it a lot in the news, by psychiatrists, authors and consultants, about the best way to get people to work together and how communication is a perennial issue.

As my wife and I approach our 25th wedding anniversary in July, I can attest to the value of good communication. This, of course, we learned through years of both good and bad communication.

Technology has created many ways for us to communicate with each other. I'll stick with the one-on-one communications as opposed to mass communications, such as books, television and radio.

One-on-one communications started as face-to-face communications and I'll talk about that later.

Distance and other factors mean that we can't always communicate face-to-face. So early on, letters and mail service replaced the face-to-face communications. At one time, writing letters was an art form, and to read the many personal communications that went back and forth between people years ago, it's easy to see why they can be so highly valued.

Later on, we had the telegraph, which kinda, sorta, replaced the letter. The telegraph was more of the texting version of writing letters — short and to the point ... just the facts, ma'am.

The telephone came along and let people interact with each other live. It enabled them to hear the various voice nuances, to share a laugh, and gave them the ability to detect sarcasm, humor and other subtle changes in tone and delivery that can convey far more than the written word. And, when calling "long distance" meant speaking quickly because of the per-minute charges, even so, each message was precious when speaking with a parent, grandparent, or friend.

Eventually e-mails came along and, it seems, they have all but eliminated the personal letter. Interestingly enough, now I find that a personal note or letter sent via mail has far more value than it used to. With most people now having access to a computer, an e-mail account and spending more and more time online, it's pretty easy to zip off an e-mail to anyone, anywhere in the world, in a moment's notice.

As with any written communication, though, it lacks the ability to communicate nuances. Hence, we've developed emoticons, such as ;-) to denote a snicker; and :-( to denote sadness; and there are many others — better than nothing at all, but still a far cry from being a good way to communicate.

The advent of texting is perhaps the worst form of communication ever. While texting can be good for truly communicating just the facts, it's rife with errors in spelling, grammar and substance. Oh, and let's not forget the new acronyms, like ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing).

Another tool that's been around for a while is video-conferencing. While typically reserved for large corporations with big budgets, high-speed Internet service has enabled anyone with a personal computer and a webcam to make use of video conference as a means of communication. This has been a boon to parents who are traveling and want to say goodnight to their kids, or tech-savvy grandparents who want to see their grandchildren frequently.

Not to be outdone, a handful of companies still occupy the high-end video-conferencing space with a technology called "telepresence," which delivers high-definition video to those who can afford it.

But none of these are a substitute for in-person, face-to-face, press-the-flesh, solid communications with others. In a time when travel budgets — both personal and corporate — are restricted due to cost savings pressures, sometimes the need to meet someone in person is even greater.

In many instances, I've had a business or personal relationship that has been good, but for which we've not met in person. While these relationships have been good, they have been remarkably better after a face-to-face meeting and typically a meal or two together.

So, for me, all of the forms of communication available today simply serve as a backup for when I can't be with someone in person. After all, we are human and no technology can replace that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 23 June 2010.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Many Do We Need?

This column started as a question of how many times I need to pay for Internet access, but took a turn to how many things we need -- in many areas.

As I was paying my bills, I was counting the number of times in my life that Internet service is paid. I have Cablevision as my Internet Service Provider (ISP) for my home. It's very good and I like it. But I also have Internet service for my mobile phone. So does my wife. My oldest daughter has an e-mail, but no large data plan. That's at least four times I pay for the same Internet access.

When I go to work, my office pays for Internet service, as does my wife's employer.

When you think about it, most of these services are used very little, typically less than 1 percent of the time. During the days when people aren't home, our Internet service is not really utilized. During nights and weekends, the office Internet connections aren't used very much, too. Mobile phone Internet service is used sporadically, but not all the time.

I do like that Cablevision is providing WiFi service in public areas at no extra charge for Cablevision subscribers. A recent announcement also allows Cablevision, Time Warner and Verizon subscribers to share each provider's public WiFi hotspots at no additional charge.

Then I thought about how many computers people need. I recall when an IBM PC XT cost essentially one month's salary. That meant that if a home had a computer, there was only one.

Now, most people in a home have at least one computer of their own, sometimes two or more, especially if the adults have one for work and one for personal use. Often people will have a special computer for either gaming or high-end applications such as video editing.

Toss in a few Kindles, iPads and smartphones, as well as game consoles (Wii, PS3, Xbox, etc.) and the number of computers in a household starts to increase dramatically. Even televisions are now specialized computers that more and more are connected to the Internet.

I have no doubt that this trend of more and more electronics in the home will continue to rise, as will the service providers such as the Geek Squad and Nerds-on-Call that will help homeowners with their increasingly complex home technology.

I even look around at the number of printers in people's homes. While many printers can be attached to and shared on a network, it's still easier for people to attach a printer to every computer.

Don't get me started about phone numbers. It used to be that most homes had one phone line ... two if they had teenagers. Now, it's not unusual for a home to have at least two lines (one for home, another for a home office), perhaps a fax line. Some homes have so much going on that they even have a PBX, which can handle multiple lines with voice mailboxes for different people.

Add to the count that each person has at least one phone number for his or her mobile phone, add a Skype or Google Voice number and it's no wonder that area codes are splitting and "overlay" area codes (two area codes for the same geography, such as 212 and 646) are multiplying faster than rabbits.

And how about e-mail accounts? I recall when I received my first e-mail account. I believe it was a CompuServe account. I paid about $50 per month for it and couldn't fathom why someone would want more than one. Now, it's not unusual for someone to have four or five e-mail accounts.

At least one e-mail account could be for personal use and another one for business use. Beyond that, people may even have e-mail accounts for an online persona that could be different than their personal account; they may have one for a school or professional organization. The reasons never stop.

After all of this lead-up, it's easy to see how things have become so complicated and confusing, sometimes of our own creation, but often times due to an inability to manage our own technology.

With each iteration of technology, it often seems to be set up to manage the previous or emerging set of technology -- with mixed success.

For me, I know that I have to manage my technology usage quite actively, otherwise I find myself swimming in it. And backing out of the technology quagmire can be quite difficult.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 9 June 2010.
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