The joys of wireless messaging (2003)

I would have written this column earlier, but I was having too much fun with wireless AOL Instant Messaging to take the time to write you all about it.

I haven’t seen an application energize this many people since, well, since the early days of wireless email c1992. Remember Radiomail? They were one of the early pioneers in providing wide-area messaging, and I recall sending and receiving messages after going through a turnpike toll booth (no, not when driving, I was parked on the side of the road, please give me some credit), only to have a cop stop by and ask me what I was doing. Ah, those were the days. Who knew from the Internet and dot coms back then?

Back when I was at CMP the first time around (as editor of Network Computing), the Radiomail application went through our staff like wildfire, and soon everyone was emailing each other rather than doing just about anything else, including paying attention at various meetings or writing their stories. The level of wireless emails got so bad that at one point we had to ban carrying the units into meetings so we could get some real work done.

As a side note, this pervasive multi-tasking continues apace today: when I was last in my high school networked classroom, I had great difficult getting my students to pay attention to my lesson because they were too busy surfing the net for their overnight CounterStrike ratings and catching up on their emails. This situation will only get worse as more colleges and schools install wireless networking, and as more students carry around laptops. At least in my wired classroom I was able to unplug the Ethernet jacks to get my students to pay attention to me. (It became a dramatic moment too, but I won’t get into that here.

Anyway, back to the present day. A couple of us at VARBusiness had received Palm i705s and as an experiment I downloaded the special wireless AIM software that works on it. I wanted to see how far things have come in the decade-plus since Radiomail. I was also motivated by the fact that I have to give a presentation this Monday at our local middle school on what parents should know about AIM. (If you are in the area and interested in coming, email me for the details.)

It didn’t take too long to install the Palm client, once I figured out that I also needed to update the Palm OS firmware as well. (The AIM web site, normally an example of clarity, mentions this in their FAQs, but they bury the factoid and don’t have the link to the firmware readily available. No big deal, but it would have been nice to know this up front.) It works pretty much like the desktop AIM client, including being able to view your buddy lists and insert smiley-faces into your conversations.

I found the same level of annoying connectivity that I initially had with Radiomail: the ability for anyone to reach me no matter where I was during the day. Several of my IMs were received during staff meetings, which began to take on the same level of rudeness that our early ones at Network Computing did (the only difference: in the present we don’t yet have the level of penetration and critical mass that we did with the early Radiomail devices). The difference, though, is a subtle one. Email is a store-and-forward system: you send a message, wait, and send one back. IM is very much an interactive setup: you are conversing, in near-real time, with several people, and your correspondents have a very low tolerance for waiting for your replies. I am not proficient at Graffiti, the handwriting recognition system for the Palm, so my replies took longer. All this interacting means the IM application is a lot more intrusive than plain old wireless email, and your colleagues’ tolerance for your multi-tasking will probably be a lot less.

We at VAR use AIM all the time now that the bosses are on it, and we have staff spread around the country. It is really a big time-saver, especially if you have to get a quick question answered. Some of us are better than others about setting up our away messages (when you are away from your desk you can set the software to tell your correspondents where or what you are doing, so they don’t get frustrated when they are trying to IM you and you don’t respond) and signing off at night when we leave the office. Having the Palm AIM client means you never are away you’re your desk: which means you feel more compelled to answer incoming IMs.

Nevertheless, we adults can’t hold a candle to the kind of usage my teenaged daughter has: IM is clearly her mission-critical app. She documents her movements and actions so completely on IM that one could write a book on her schedule and activities just from her away messages alone.

So I brought the Palm home and had her try it out. She very quickly was timing the delay in sending messages back and forth between a regular wired desktop and a second account that she had up and running on the Palm within a few seconds. (No, I didn’t suggest this, but she is her father’s daughter after all.) The average delay was around 5 or 6 seconds, and it wasn’t symmetrical, meaning that sending an IM to the wireless network took longer than receiving one. I didn’t have a ready explanation for that circumstance, but figure it is just one of those wireless network oddities.

But she didn’t extensively test the Palm, mainly because after a few minutes, she was back on the desktop, typing furiously to her closest dozen or so friends. She isn’t an expert on Graffiti either, although she did admit that with the Palm keyboard she would probably have continued to use the wireless version for a bit longer. She did point out (again without any prompting from me) that having AIM anywhere could get rude when one was in meetings or with friends, and I agreed with her. It remains to be seen if I end up carrying the Palm around with me or not.

In the meantime, please don’t IM me,

 

 

 

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