What happened was, I found myself talking to my computer before breakfast this morning, and I didn’t really like it. Then I looked at the screen and saw the dozens of folders full of thousands of emails, the Web browser parked at a Wiki, the chat icons, and the RSS aggregator. Feeling a little overwhelmed, I looked around the room and saw the newspapers, the magazines, the TV, and a pile of unanswered (physical) mail, as well as Lauren’s and my cellphones charging and the land-line on the sideboard. All these are about moving messages around. So I ask: which is the right one to use?

Side-trip: iChat · First of all, why was I talking to the computer? I’m thinking about getting a couple of iSights and turning the old powerbook into a videophone for when Lauren or I are on the road.

To this end, I downloaded the iChat AV client, which by the way is substantially better than plain ol’ iChat even without any A/V goodies. My colleague Bill was in a hotel in Washington DC, and I was IMing him to sync up on a couple of teleconferences, and suddenly this window popped up wondering if I wanted to go audio. I did, and Bill said “Hey Tim!” and there I was talking away. We didn’t have video, but you don’t exactly need it to sync up a teleconference. The sound wasn’t breathtaking but it was better than quite a few state-of-the-art cellphones.

Geeking out for a minute, I should note that my laptop wasn’t plugged in to anything, the conversation was going through the air via Airport Extreme, through 100MB Cat5 inside the house walls to the commodity Linux box in the basement which pumped it through the DSL modem to my ISP; at the other end of the Internet Bill’s powerbook was plugged into the $10/day (free for members) fast internet in the hotel room. How much of this would have been possible ten years ago? Five years ago? One year ago?

I Didn’t Like It · I hadn’t gone to work yet, I was sitting there in a comfy chair in my own living room with Lauren and Shannon and the kid going about their business, talking to my computer. I would have been just fine with typing a few text messages back & forth to get synced up.

Would I have been more comfortable in my office? Would I have been less comfortable if we’d both had cameras? I don’t know.

Ways to Find Out · Recently I wrote about the experience of subscribing to changes in a document and wondered how this might be different or better or worse than just getting it by email. This touched a nerve, I got a lot of thoughtful email and in-links, some of which I’ll reproduce here.

Bill Seitz · (Web) “But does it really make sense to have all those aggregators pinging a resource constantly for the sake of an occasional update?”

Ivan-Assen Ivanov · “an RSS feed's history is stored inside a relatively immature, first- or at most third-generation software called a RSS reader. Most of them have inadequate search facilities.

“On the other hand, a mail folder is stored inside the stable, feature-complete piece of software which is my email client (and probably yours). It has powerful search and organization capabilities, and extensive add-ons - e.g. recently I found an extremely fast indexing search plugin for Outlook (which I won't name because you'd think that I'm writing this just to plug said Outlook plugin).

“That's why I like blogstreet's rss-to-imap service. It's not perfect, so I'm trying to find the time to write my own tool. But I'm certain that this is the right way to aggregate feeds - into your email client.”

Dominique Hazaël-Massieux · (Web) “The reality is probably even closer to what you may have been thinking, since the RSS feed is generated from the a mailing list archive.”

Fazal Majid · (Web) “The most interesting distinction I would make is the use case. Ideally you will read each email carefully. This does not account for spam, occupational or otherwise, or just plain information overload (sorry for adding to it). Still, mail user interfaces are built around this premise.

“RSS is designed to be scanned, the assumption being that you will only read a small fraction of the items, just as you scan the headlines in a newspaper and read only a few articles.

“That's why trying to shoehorn a RSS reader in a mail style user interface, as NetNewsWire or NewsGator do, is ill-advised, IMO. I personally believe the ideal user interface for RSS is one that would look like Google News or Columbia Newsblaster. For the moment, I settled for FeedOnFeeds.

“My pet dream non-conventional RSS application: a TiVo that can subscribe to program listings formatted as RSS feeds.”

Mark Nottingham · Gives four well-thought-out points beginning “Subscribing to an RSS feed is anonymous... ”; Read it in full.

Aaron Straup Cope · (Web) “I think the difference is that every email application ever written sucks and RSS aggregators (like everything else, so the truism goes) are striving to be email clients.”

It’s Not Just Email and RSS and Chat · Lauren is setting up to do a big, fascinating consulting project revolving around a massive procurement decision, and we talked it over and convinced each other that a Wiki would be a really good way for the team to structure the analysis and decision-making.

Surfing Isn’t Going Away · I subscribe to Adam Bosworth and Dervala because they post intermittently, but when they do, you really want to read it; so it would be totally non-cost-effective to visit those sites every day. On the other hand, I don’t subscribe to Dave Winer, because he posts in little breathless chunks all the time, and I know if I surf over there once a day, unless he’s gravely ill there’ll be a day’s worth of stuff all ready to read.

Neither are Phones · I carry a cellphone. Everybody carries a cellphone. Everybody who isn’t in North America is sending text messages on their cellphone; if you walk down a busy street in Tokyo you have to keep your eyes open because a certain number of the pedestrians are holding their phones up in front of their face and messaging.

Recently I signed up for a service like the old Wildfire that will catch my calls and route them to wherever it thinks I am and, if I don’t answer, email me the message in an MP3. That’s pushing the transmodal envelope.

So, given all this, what are we to conclude? Beats the hell outta me. Except for...

Cost Is Not An Issue · This just dawned on me today. In practical terms, the unit cost of a deskphone call, of glancing at my RSS aggregator, of pulling up the next email, of hitting a preset on my cell, of checking into that hot Wiki page, of double-clicking on someone in my buddy list, they’re all about the same, and they’re all effectively zero. As of the advent of iChat AV, two-way videophones are, well, free.

So the bottom line is, we are as a culture going to work out how it is we want to talk to each other, and we have this immensely wide spectrum of ways to do it, and we can pretty well pick and choose among them.

I advise prognosticators to steer far, far, away from this rats’ nest, because I can think of nothing less predictable. At one level, the issues are personal: I want to make a romantic proposition, do I use the phone, or email, or chat? Or, I want to find out what the flaming hell the VP Marketing meant by that wacked-out email yesterday. Or, I want to figure out what this potential customer’s problems are, not what they say they are, so we can maybe do a deal with them. Or, I want to get Mom’s advice on how to get a kid with chicken pox a decent night’s sleep.

At another level, it’s all about technology. Anyone who, ten years ago, could have predicted either the massive pervasiveness of email, or its being increasingly poisoned by the toxic tidal wave of spam, would in retrospect be clearly a genius. Or who could have predicted RSS? As for iChat AV, everybody predicted that, I saw the TVphone at the 1960-something World’s Fair site, only they were wrong until 2003.

I’m scared of predictions, but it’s going to be fun to watch. Here’s one for free though: sometimes you’re just going to have to get the right people in the room at the same time, with whiteboards or single-malt Scotch or a down-filled duvet, to get the job done.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
September 30, 2003
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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.