Mr Watson — come here — I want to see you

Today, 10th March. Roll back 130 years. 1876. That was when Alexander Graham Bell uttered the words in the title to his assistant Mr Watson, and thereby made what many believe to be the world’s first successful telephone call. Bell’s journal records his response: “To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”. Here’s the actual entry:

Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can riffle through the rest of the journal here.

I was a kid when I first heard about that call, and it excited me. It still excites me. The ability to transmit speech is a wondrous thing.

That’s why I work for BT. Because I want to work with people who believe that. People who get out of bed believing that the ability to communicate using voice is something special. People who go to bed believing that the ability to communicate using voice is something special.

Every day, when I come in to work, I see this plaque outside the building:

Last summer I visited Bologna for the first time. A beautiful city with miles and miles of porticos, a very pleasant “walking” city that I look forward to revisiting. While I was there, I found out that the city housing the Western world’s oldest university, the city that gave us ragu alla Bolognese and mortadella, also gave us Guglielmo Marconi. So I had to make a point of visiting the university and seeing the library there.

I happen to live in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; serendipitously, when visiting Cookham Rise many years ago, I found out that Marconi had lived there. And that excited me.

A decade ago, I had the opportunity to invite Marty Cooper to speak to us at an in-house conference. And it excited me to hear about the call he made to Joel Engel, what became the world’s first mobile phone call.

You may get the impression that I was fascinated by wireless when I was a child. You would be right. And I continue to be fascinated by the possibilities afforded us by wireless communications.

I am particularly fascinated by the space where voice and wireless intersect in a digital world. That’s why Ribbit (and its predecessor, Web21C)  excites me so much.

There was a time when we had analog image. Take shots using analog film. Develop film. Print film. Sometimes even write something about the photo on the back of the print.

That print was static. It could be enlarged, retouched, altered, shared. But not easily. Today, image is digital. You take a photograph. It’s auto date- and time-stamped, geolocated. A large amount of metadata about the image is made available cheaply. Take a look at this example taken from Ryan Eng’s photostream on Flickr:

If you visit this particular photograph in Flickr, then just under the “taken with a Nikon D90” statement is a link to More Properties. Which gives you this, and more:

That which has happened to image is happening to voice. It’s getting Tivo-ised. You can do things to voice that you could never do before. You can do things with voice that you could never do before. You can do things because of voice that you could never do before.

The possibilities are tremendous. Outcomes that affect our daily lives worldwide. In education, something I’m personally very committed to. In healthcare. In our business processes. And, most importantly, as human beings, as friends, as family. That’s why I wrote the Kernel For This Blog the way I did, years before I joined BT.

People talk to people. As the Cluetrain guys said, markets are conversations.

That’s why I get excited about the world’s first telephone call 130 years later. That’s why I get excited about coming to work. Even though times are hard. Because I have the privilege of working on things that I’m passionate about.

Incidentally, one of the things that excites me is the very ability to do this. Write this post. Link to the references. Publish it to all and sundry. In a readable, shareable, commentable, enrichable form. With tools that allow me to make this post persistent, archivable, searchable, retrievable.

These changes that are taking place, they’re not minor. It’s 38 years since the first e-mail message, 36 years since the first mobile phone call. Yet for many these things are only just embedding into the public consciousness. We still have a long way to go to figure out what can be done with voice as it turns into a digital object, a social object that happens to be digital.

People have been speaking to people for a long time. But now they have tools that extend the possibilities of speech in ways nobody thought of before. And I’m excited to be somewhere where people care about these things. And are talented enough to do something about it.

13 thoughts on “Mr Watson — come here — I want to see you”

  1. Things are moving so quickly. I was chatting with a friend the other day who’s working at a company doing incredible things with IP6 and quantum computing. Reminded me why I’m convinced that everything on the interwebs is still a prototype. The land grab is still on; there are many land masses still to be discovered. As things develop we’ll all have to defend our terrotories. There are many more young upstarts coming along to disrupt the disrupters.

  2. I love this post too! Although calling someone to “come here” long ago became a joke with me. It reflects an autocratic time when “commands” came via the telephone. That’s one of the issues I still have. I think the receiver should be in control.

    That means that our signaling system is no longer quite so appropriate. Yet why make this point? Here on this historical reference. For me it is simple. We still delight in hearing another voice and we often forget how nice it is. Yes it may take our attention away from other activities, yet it is richer, and we get nuances that we will never get in text.

    I have an observation coming from your post above. Telephony is increasingly falling to text at a time when a little “talk” could save the world. Our text based gestures are failing us. I might write here that I send every email with an open invite to call me. Yet few ever do. I could add the same thought with this post. So what’s the problem.

    Our credentials! If you were to phone me today other than on Skype (for which you would have to get approval) you would probably go to voice mail as an unknown number. There’s also a good chance that it could interrupt me at an in opportune time. Yet more likely I would smile and go “great” and take the call. Because it’s a connection that is a little outside my buddylist. And only voice can close this connection more quickly.

    In our focus on trying to make voicify the web we haven’t or aren’t mastering an improvement in the gesture. I think you know I created Phweet. It sends a signal with the context for the call and attaches a Caller ID (some social network profile which I’m happy to use if you are which will broker the identity layer for us).

    As a gesture it says… or can be attached in principle to anything I send by text. It’s a an offer to have that “voice” conversation.

    Ringing out of the blue is basically dead. It appears. Yes the gesture of “I want to call you / I want to talk to you / Let’s have a conversation” has never been bigger or more important. With such a move to text we need to bring more personality in before the call. Again approaches that give a rich callerID and context before the call without crashing the gates or providing unwanted interruptions is the way forward.

    That’s why we got excited when we started sharing live telephone records. Stuart is talking to David etc in Twitter. Thus opening up voice conversations in real-time. For those outside the buddylist, or those that perhaps you don’t want to share all your channels with its a worthy solution. More importantly you can blow up the exchange after the call. I bet Alexander Graham Bell never thought of that!

  3. JP,
    It’s been a long time since you’ve been to India and you might not completely appreciate what is happening here with the growth of mobile telephony.
    Mobiles are making the poorest of traders more efficient — and helping them break their income ceilings. For example, vegetable vendors with no permanent shops and no fixed address share their mobile numbers with their customers and, subsequently, increase their business with added home delivery revenues. There are traders with no fixed address trading in mobile recharge cards, in laundry services, in food, in flowers, you name it, it’s available. Marginal farmers use the phone to get a fix on the best prices available for their produce.
    The mobile phone is doing more to create a level playing field for the underprivileged than, perhaps, the right to VOTE.
    This is no exagerration.
    And this is extraordinary, in a country where, when we had two phones at home, we were privileged.
    Working on a book called ‘Ten last calls’ which, hopefully, will point to what the mobile is being used for. Book will be based on at least 1000 interviews with mobile phone users from all demographics.

  4. @san1t1, I agree with you, we’re still at the exploratory stage. That’s what makes all this so exciting.
    @stuart, thanks for dropping by. Of course I am aware of you and what you do. Let me know next time you’re anywhere near St Pauls and we can have a cup of tea together. We’re doing a lot on Caller ID 2.o at Ribbit, I can take you through where we are on it.
    @anant, delighted to hear you’re writing a book. I have been tracking what’s happening in India, but mainly remotely and vicariously. Is there some resource on the web that will help me learn more?

  5. @reggie, thanks for your comments and encouragement. You’ve given me an idea. Maybe I should index and list blogs that excite me from an amateur science perspective; they may not be populist or even popular, but usually contain what a passionate youth may want to see.

  6. JP,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. But however great and useful communication is, telecommunication itself (or rather the companies providing them as a service) became a bad word so many times. Think the ’70s or ’80s when it was scarcity. Think 2000 when it was abundance and eventual bust. Think today when everyone (oops, or not, really… probably we just wanna talk and that’s it) wants the 2.0 of everything and instead of that, bust again.
    So many things are happening, yet the phone call Mr. Bell made 130 years ago is not distinctly different from the one I can make today.
    Let’s explore what can be done, but also start telling people what’s possible. All the technology is just a small piece, change in mindset is much bigger I think.

  7. I have to admit to having joined BT for similar reasons: voice communications has always fascinated me, whilst the company has both an amazing legacy and unparalleled opportunities.

    I’m almost still as awe-struck by voice communications as when I built my first crystal radio, aged around 7 years old (I tuned into Live Aid on a home built transistor radio some 3 years later). Spending hours sitting on the floor, with it attached to the central heating piping for earth and straining to hear the more distant stations. Generating sounds from afar, with a device that took no batteries! All those voices, running side-by-side, in the ether and there for the taking. Never ceases to amaze…

    @Reggie +1. Things like integration, micromanagement, business model engineering, brands and call centre excellence are all very well, but we’ll end up in a very bad place if we cease to create. I want to see more local innovation, and with it the sort of wacky failures that appear to be commited to the past, but in amongst which creations of sheer genius were to be found. As @san1t1 suggests the land grab is still on, and we just need to ensure that we are part of it and not on the periphery.

  8. Several lifetimes ago when I worked for a call centre agency, the prevailing wisdom was that most people are either oral communicators or written communicators, and this predisposition is so deeply embedded that it’s futile to try to turn one into the other. I’ve seen nothing since to overturn that view although there are obviously individuals who are comfortable in either medium (and some in neither!).

    The point is this: commercial success probably depends on removing friction from your transactions. One way to approach this is to be agnostic about the channel people use to buy your services. Voice is an important component of this – many people prefer to talk than write – but we are some way off integrating the two channels in a way that favours neither. I guess JP would say that Ribbit is a big part of the answer.

  9. Peter, Andrew, Dom, thanks for your comments. I’ve never believed that voice is the only thing. What I have believed is that voice is not to be disparaged or cast aside.

    You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

  10. Was commenting only yseterday with my long time colleague that the one thing that no one seems to do with their iPhone is use it as a phone. In fact I hardly remember anyone speaking into one.

    Thats no comment on mobile telephony – its just the word and the image are favoured by the net.

Let me know what you think