Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Store and Forward

Email is what they call a "store and forward" technology. You don't have to be online to receive it.

The problem is with the forward part: it doesn't. You have to go get it. This is what they call "polling". Computer scientists usually discourage polling because it's a waste of resources; constantly going out and looking for things that might be happening. A better mechanism is notification. Operating systems use notifications, deep down inside their inner workings. Cell phones do this. Telephones do this: your phone does not touch base with the central office every 5 seconds to see if there are any incoming phone calls.

Email used to actually use forwarding, back in the days of UUCP (which stands for Unix-to-Unix-CoPy). Usenet is still (mostly) store-and-forward. A system would dial another system on the modem when there was mail to be delivered. It worked great.

Nowadays POP and IMAP protocols use polling (Check New Mail...), and web mail uses an even more primitive form of polling: human beings, who need to actually browse their way to a web site.

This is becoming more and more important (despite the spam epidemic) as people manage their online and offline states, use IM software, travel across time zones, etc. The question of whether or not "you have new mail" has become an obsessive cultural diversion.

If this issue interests you, check out our software, InterComm. We use groups, and people communicate with sets of people, online or not. Messages are actually stored in the group, and they're actually forwarded to you if you're not online—through email, yes, or through text messaging on your phone or handheld, which truly is a forwarding technology. It's refreshing, and amazing, at the same time.

Friday, September 17, 2004


Do you know what LOL means when somebody types it in an email or an IM?

It's okay to say "no". Everybody had to learn it somewhere along the way. I have asked my niece, a high school senior, many such questions (it means laughing out loud. I'll let you ask your niece what ROTFLMAO means. I'll give a hint: the L is for "laughing".

In the old days, teenagers asked their parents about the meaning of life, and words, and concepts. Now it's the other way around: we ask our teenagers what words mean, and to explain various social phenomena.

Honey, what's blogging?

Writing stuff on your web log, Dad; now quit bugging me, I'm on the phone.

I recently was interviewed by an influential journalist (who will remain unnamed here), and we completed part of our conversation through instant messaging, since deadlines, either editorially-imposed or software-imposed, often require intermittent conversations, some on the phone, some through email, some through IM.

So my conversation with this (funny, engaging) journalist became peppered with "lol" as we discussed the industry at large and a few things that are ridiculous, or perplexing, as observations were made on one side or the other of the conversation. Hopefully some of them won't end up in print, but it's okay if they do, because I generally stand by all my remarks.

Anyway, the point is that lol doesn't really mean "laugh out loud" for most people any more (among those who use this lingo at all, of course). It has become iconic, a way to smile electronically, a broader smile than the venerable :-) emoticon.

This is a fascinating social trend. You can't smile on the telephone, but there are audible cues as to what the other person might be thinking, or feeling; you can hear someone's tone, or chuckling, and pick up on the irony or humor. This is much harder to do in text-based conversations. You've all read the admonitions to "tone it down" on email because it's so easy to be misunderstood.

In this world of high bandwidth, multimedia, videoconferencing, and real-time communication, people still love to send text messages. Michael Tchong came by our offices yesterday, and we were talking about instant messaging and emoticons. His contention is that people prefer text communication, especially IM, for a number of reasons. I think I agree, because you can say things you wouldn't face-to-face, there's no embarrassment of timing (those long pauses on the phone) or bad hair (video conferencing). It's direct, yet you can think for a few seconds before replying, and edit your reply if you need to. And it's silent (to co-workers or parents) who may think you're working very hard, at the rate the keyboard is clacking.

It's just hard to laugh out loud silently, so someone miles away can hear you.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

"There are Updates; Do You Want to Install Them Now?"

Does it annoy you when software "nags" you?

I used to think it annoyed me, but I'm finding that I like it. Would I really remember to install the Windows Updates if it didn't bug me to do it? And that handy little popup that lets me postpone the nagging by an amount that feels comfortable to me—what a great idea.

And though I hate SPAM and will never, ever buy anything that anybody SPAMs me about, there are those mailing lists that I inexplicably sign up for, willingly, like the Hanna Andersson online catalog (they make great kid's clothes). I got an email tonight with the subject Our Best-Ever Playdress is Still Twirling After All These Years and I actually clicked on the link, browsed around on their site for a while, and almost bought a little sleeper for my one-year-old, before I came to my senses and remembered I was going to write something in my blog tonight.

But it got me thinking that nagging software can be useful, even appreciated, in this busy, interrupt-driven world—if done right.

Not all nagging software is done right. In fact, most isn't, though it's getting better. Some of it still irritates me. Shareware, for example, is the cornerstone of nagware. Some apps do a great job; I can remember a shareware app that displayed the usual you haven't paid me yet dialog but grayed out the OK button for some number of seconds, that increased the more often you used the program in a given day. I eventually bought a license, as I always do if I find the software genuinely useful. But others are annoying in their approach, so I delete the software, rather than pay the authors.

Let me know your thoughts about this—the nagging that works for you, the nagging that is irritating, and whether you like the increasingly common check box that says, Don't show this dialog again.