Privacy and Prejudice: An Interruption 2.0 Manifesto for the AlwaysOn Lifestyle

iotum logoTaking back control of your real time communications in the AlwaysOn world.

(While this post was published originally  inFebruary 2007, it still has even more relevance in a very active Social Networking world; see the Update note at the end of the post).

When reporting on my visit last summer to an Alexander Graham Bell museum near his summer home, I discovered an interesting facet to his lifestyle:

In all his homes he had a separate office/laboratory room where he could be a night owl geek writing, experimenting and thinking. But he never had a telephone installed in any of his offices/labs.

Dr. Bell did not want his experimentation activities interrupted during his time in his home offices. Local folklore (I live less than an hour from RIM’s headquarters) has it that when Jim Balsillie, CEO of Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion, enters his home, his family has asked him to leave his Blackberry at the door. And for years we have been searching for solutions to the dinner-time interruptions of those persistent telemarketers. In the Skype world we have those who seem to think a simple “Hi” in a chat window is sufficient introduction to start a conversation with a total stranger from the other side of the world. The potential for interruptions has become prolific with the introduction of each new technology and/or service, especially those that are “AlwaysOn”. In turn these AlwaysOn services expose us, as users, to being “Always Available”.

Yet we build our lives around communication with friends, lifestyle service providers and business colleagues who need to communicate at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. In today’s AlwaysOn world, made possible through both broadband Internet connectivity and mobile phones, there has arisen a crying need to manage our interruptions based on our interpersonal relationships and the real time context of our current activities. We want to ensure our communications efforts and time are spent more effectively with friends and family and spent more productively with the lifestyle service providers, business colleagues and clientele with whom we need to converse to carry on both our personal life and business activities. But such a demand requires a more intelligent algorithm for providing presence and availability information.

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to evaluate many real time communications modes on new platforms such as the Blackberry 8700, Nokia N80i (selected since it runs on both WiFi and all four GSM bands) and a couple of models of the newly released “PC-Free” Skype phones. As a result I have had the opportunity to experience many modes of interruption of my activities and many modes of generating interruptions of my Contacts’ activities. They all have an element of providing basic presence information prior to making a phone call and, in some cases, also provide an ability to Chat through an IM client. And through these devices we also have new modes of real time communication: SMS messaging, email, and, with the arrival of embedded GPS, location-based services. More AlwaysOn services that simply increase the potential to be “Always Available”.

  • While at CES, I used Blackberry Messenger to communicate directly (PIN to PIN) with key business contacts as I toured the exhibition floor and as we approached the time for key meetings. This “direct” channel was instantaneous and improved our “conference” productivity in a very crowded and noisy environment where voice communications was not only relatively expensive but also almost physically impossible due to background noise. Through its “Open Conversation” mode, one has an element of presence (Available/Not Available//Online/Offline) of user-designated remote contacts.
  • Truphone on the N80i allows me to make calls from any WiFi hotspot (provided I have or can readily obtain authentication) but has no ability to tell me if my remote contact is readily available for a real time conversation.
  • Fring (also on the Nokia N80i) provides both traditional presence and chat capability with my Skype, Gmail and/or MSN Messenger contacts but its “fringing ringing” with every chat session entry becomes overbearing and very annoying, especially once when I was in five concurrent chat sessions.
  • “PC-Free” Skype phones provide Skype’s basic presence but no chat capability. So one cannot invoke the standard VoIM protocol of texting a Contact to enquire if s/he is available to take a Skype call.
  • My Blackberry email messages are restricted, via a web-based service from my Service Provider, such that only those email addresses I have designated will find their emails forwarded from my legacy email to my Blackberry.
  • Over the past several weeks I have been participating in the technology preview of iotum’s Talk-Now for Blackberry.This testing has provided plenty of opportunity to think about (i) when I want to be interrupted for a real time conversation and (ii) when I want simply to to be able to access presence or availability information in the context of not only my Contacts’ current “status” but also his/her current work activity and even previous communications activity.

Concurrent with managing interruptions I also need the intelligence to manage multiple phone connections (and, potentially, multiple IM connections). For instance,

  • “PC-Free” Skype phones potentially put the user in the position of effectively having two phones, especially if one wants to continue to use Skype for business via a legacy PC Skype interface but the “PC-Free” phone is to be used in conjunction with, say, a home phone line. This creates the need to sign up for an additional Skype account for the “PC Free” phone. (More in a separate post.)
  • My Fring installation is on a separate device which is the only one that supports both WiFi and GSM connectivity.

Bottom line is that I want to manage my availability for real time communications taking into account:

  • Whom I want to be interrupted by in real time? whether the communications mode is chat, voice, SMS, video calls, etc.
  • How do I triage my incoming calls to determine if I need to answer immediately or should wait until time permits a callback.
  • What is the context of the interruption? Am I in a meeting? Is the caller someone whom I will be meeting later in the day and may want to discuss arrangements for that meeting?
  • What is the relationship between me and the Contact? Is s/he a customer, a work colleague, a friend or a family member?
  • What hours am I available for business activities? for personal activities?
  • What is the context of the Contact’s current situation? Is s/he occupied by a meeting or willing to accept business calls at this time? What are her/his personal/business hours?
  • How do we avoid voice mail tag? A recent study of calls placed at CAP Gemini showed that 82% of all calls end up in voice mail and it takes 3.15 attempts to make a voice connection.
  • How do I ensure that I don’t miss either business or personal opportunities through ad hoc calls?
  • How do I want to be notified of an interruption: a loud ringing phone? a silent vibrating phone?, a ring tone in my Bluetooth headset?
  • What is important enough in context to trigger a notification (and therefore an interruption)?
  • On what device (or service) do I want to be interrupted at any given point in time and physical location?
  • How can my real time communications activity make my day more productive?

What are the implications for the developers and providers of new services?

  • While the ability to open the same Skype account on several platforms can be convenient, it raises issues of currency of presence information on any device, including which platform should be considered the “primary” platform for, say, chat messages? How does one keep all the open clients in sync, especially with respect to presence information?
  • How can I share my real time availability information with my critical business colleagues to ensure ad hoc access while reducing voice mail’s “running interference” and/or inappropriate interruptions?
  • How does a service provide maximum end user flexibility with respect to issues such notification method, desired device at the time, hour of the day, designating Contacts’ relationships, etc.
  • How can a service maintain an element of personal privacy in this era where identity theft and aberrant personal exposure can change your life forever?
  • How does a service prejudice my interruption management towards those whom the user really wants to communicate with, yet not miss personal and business opportunities that arise from new introductions?

At this point in time there is no single answer. But through technology preview platforms such as Talk-Now, Fring, Truphone and new types of products, such as the “PC-Free” embedded Skype phones, we are getting a chance to experience in practice when, where and how we want to be interrupted. Hopefully these experiences will build the etiquette and protocols for implementing what Alec Saunders at iotum has labeled “New Presence” – delivering intelligent availability in a real time context to facilitate ad hoc interpersonal communications.

Bottom line: I want to be able to participate in the conversations essential to my lifestyle and my business operations – when, where and how I choose. And the service(s) of choice will only rise above the noise (and become a revenue generator) when I can take back control of my life – through a focus on restoring my privacy and my prejudices to my communications activity.

Update April 12, 2011: While iotum’s Talk Now service has gone away and iotum now offers their CallifFlower Conferencing service, the concepts of this Interruption Manifesto actually apply more deeply given all the approaches available in a Social Networking world.

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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