Chatting to an acquaintance the other day about video conferencing, I asked him what concerned him most about the technology. He said he didn?t mind the jerky video pictures, he wasn?t bothered about the social isolation, he could even could put up with the high cost of ISDN. No, what worried him (apart from the fear that some bar-steward would change all the standards again so that his kit would no longer talk to anyone else?s) was that software writers would spoil it by making it more complicated.
Come, come, said I, had he never heard of progress? True, personal productivity software performs as fast on my old 286 as it does on the latest Pentium II, but think of all the extra features and training aids which have been introduced since 1987. That, he said, was just what he was thinking of. He has had plenty of experience of the software industry?s idea of progress.
Whenever he wants to write a three-line memo, he has to load umpteen gigabytes of integrated office suite, spend an hour deciding which font to put it in, and pondering whether to include a scanned image of his wife and children. Whenever he wants to amend a number on the internal telephone list, instead of Tipp-Ex-ing it out on the office noticeboard, he has to wait a fortnight until the Web master returns from the latest Java course and puts it on the company intranet.
Now he fears video conferencing will go the same way. As we shuffle headlong into the digital age, the telephone has become ever more complicated. In its early days, callers simply picked up the receiver and bellowed at the operator. Numbers consisted of an easily remembered name and four digits ? such as Whitehall 1212 or Maida Vale 4391.
Operators were phased out and numbers lengthened. But there were still letters around the dial to help you remember numbers. Thus the local garage on 349227 became FIX CAR, while the dodgy kebab shop on 332 3304 was remembered as DEAD DOG. Personally I would have favoured 703033 ? it spells SOD OFF.
In the last few years, London numbers have been split, most provincial numbers have been increased from five digits to six, Phone Day has added yet another digit, and several towns and cities have had their codes changed completely. On top of that, we have mobile numbers, low-cost numbers, personal numbers, national numbers and mumbo-jumbo numbers. BT helpfully points out that you can estimate the cost of a call from the first two digits of the code. For example, if the number begins with 08, a five minute call can only cost between nothing and #2.50 ? gee, thanks, BT.
All this while our only interface to the telephone system has been the humble handset. How much more difficult will technology make it when we have to negotiate a whole PC just to make a phone call? The first few times we reach for the receiver, a wisecracking cartoon dog will try our patience by offering helpful hints on international dialling codes or video etiquette. After negotiating a few pull-down menus, we shall be invited to select a format for data-sharing, a font for whiteboarding, and a backdrop which complements the colour of our shirt.
Finally, we shall take a quick shuftie at the Wysiwig preview to see if our whizzy wig is straight; carefully crop our outgoing image to remove our double chin or five o?clock shadow; close down the recalc we were doing in the background because it hammers our data compression performance; and we shall be ready to make that call ? only to find ourselves leaving a message on the other person?s video-mail. Of course, by remembering a combination of six function keys, we shall be able to zoom straight to the settings we want ? except that by then we shall have forgotten the number we wanted to dial in the first place.
Imagine what will happen when the software gurus are let loose on other everyday tasks. Already the advent of the CD-Rom has meant we can no longer make an omelette without lugging a multimedia PC into the kitchen and invoking the digitised features of Delia, Ken Hom, or some other celebrity egg-breaker. I suppose the next application will be feeding the baby. ?Just a minute, darling, while I type your vital statistics into the spreadsheet and trawl the World Wide Web for the low-down on baby milk additives.? By then the kid will have crawled out of the Moses basket and devoured the contents of the dog bowl.
Outside, things will be no better. Crossing roads will be made easy by Safe Passage from Zebra Software ? except that we shall need to spend 20 minutes keying data on traffic flows, ozone levels and wind speeds into our laptop. And before getting into a lift we shall have to reveal our diet, medical history and personal hygiene habits to Elevate from Uplift Corp.
Never mind. It will all require even more powerful PCs to run on. How else is Intel going to sell the Pentium III?
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