You can’t ignore a ringing phone

It’s funny when you look back a few years to see just how communications technology has changed – remember when you might have asked (or been asked), “are you on the phone?”… meaning not, “are you using the phone” but “do you have a phone at home”… now we just assume that (pretty much) everyone’s got a mobile phone, everyone has internet access and everyone has at least one email account.

Organisational culture has evolved a lot in the last 5-10 years, to the point where a lot of people hide behind email while some try to escalate into other forms of communication as soon as possible. There’s one guy at Microsoft who always phones in response to getting an email from me. I tend to enjoy playing cat and mouse by letting the phone drop to voicemail, listening to the message, then emailing him back 🙂

A lot of us have settled on corporate Instant Messaging as a happy medium, for a number of reasons:

  • Like email, it offers access to the whole corporate address book, not just the list of people I’ve talked to before (such as MSN/Live Messenger does) so I can IM people I’ve never had anything to do with.
  • Presence from Communicator is shown in Outlook 2007, and on Sharepoint web sites, so it’s often easier to be context sensitive.If someone’s presence shows up as “In a Call”, there’s no point in phoning them, cos they’re already on the phone (and the status is set by the telephone system, so when they hang up, it’ll revert back to Normal).
  • Best of all, it’s neither as intrusive as a phone, but the immediacy doesn’t get lost as easily as in email.
    • You can’t really ignore a phone that’s ringing – sure, you can forward to voicemail so it doesn’t ring at all, but that’s different.
      • A phone which forwards to voicemail is like the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment in that you won’t know whether you have voicemail – and hence whether anyone was ringing the phone at any given point – until you observe the light on the phone or you actually check your messages. So,
    • When the phone rings, you decide (usually based on the caller ID that’s displayed) if you’re going to answer it, combined with a load of environmental factors (are you busy? are you in a place where you don’t want to take this call? are you just about to go to the toilet so don’t want to be distracted right now? etc)
    • Email, for a lot of people, tends to be like a stack. The last message in (and the one at the top of the list) is the one that gets first attention, meaning it’s easy to overlook stuff that’s in the middle of the stack and probably off-screen when the Inbox is sorted.
  • If someone doesn’t respond to an IM, you generally accept that maybe they didn’t see it – because it’s disposable communication, you don’t tend to have the assumption that a reply is expected. If a sender doesn’t get a response to something important, they’ll always try again, or escalate to another form of communication (like phoning you up).
  • IM makes a great way of starting a side conversation with someone, which might turn into something more formal (escalating to email, to face:face, to group conversations on the phone or even online meetings through the likes of Live Meeting).
    • Often, I’ll see someone’s staus as “In a meeting” – now that could mean they’re sitting at their desk but with Outlook blocking time out of their calendar to do some work (or maybe they’re on a conference call). I’d typically say “busy? got a min?” and if no response comes back, I’d assume that yes, they are busy, and no, they don’t have a min. If a response does come back, then maybe I’ll realise they’re not busy, they’re not on the phone, and in fact, they’d like to meet up for a coffee in 5 minutes.

Interestingly enough, John Westworth IM’ed me halfway through my writing this post to ask a question about my mobile device (an SPV M3100). He theorised that he doesn’t answer his phone much (more through accident than desire, I should add), and figured that I might be the same… so it would be better to IM instead …

This led to an idea for some canny Windows Mobile developer to pick up, and make riches from – an AI-like Bozo Filter for the phone. Just think … it could pick up the Caller ID from an incoming call, figure out if that user is in the Outlook contacts list (or maybe even the GAL) and cross reference with the number of times that individual appears in the Call History (ie have I called this guy before? Has he called me a lot and actually got through?) and in the mail client, then apply a Bozo Confidence Filter (BCL) to the call… which would then allow me to set up rules to decide my preferences for when I will accept calls and from what level of Bozo…

Combine all this with the inherently linear nature of a phone call – it’s synchronous, you (generally) can only have one at a time, and they tend to be fairly short. IM conversations can be done in parallel with each other (though make sure you don’t type a comment into the wrong window by mistake…) and some may have many rounds of dialogue/response stretching over a reasonable period of time (usually at most a day). Email would suit much more asynchronous communications that might be shared with hundreds of people, stretched over any length of time. Choosing which one to use is increasingly a personal preference, and in future, the choice is increasingly going to be with the recipient rather than the sender. So, when the guy I mentioned earlier picks up the phone to call me and I don’t answer, I might receive the call as an IM stream if I’m online and want to take it, rather than dumping straight to Voicemail…

Exciting times, eh?


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