Mobile Communications – and the crisis of “now”

Clearly we all see a lot of value in mobile technology, and those who have heard me speak will probably have heard me talk about McGuire’s law of mobility, namely:

“The value of any product or service increases with its mobility”.

This law explains why we all carry mobile phones around – not because we didn’t have enough to carry already, but because we get value out of mobile communications – the ability to contact, and be contacted from almost anywhere, at any time.

And it’s the anywhere, any-time aspect that is causing us all a crisis – which I have named the crisis of “now”.

These days, people cannot seem to tolerate it if they can’t immediately contact someone.  They get annoyed if their text message is not immediately responded to.  Diversions to voice-mail, particularly the immediate one which indicates that the phone is switched off, irritate people.  The problem isn’t contained to mobile phones – a friend whose organisation uses Instant Messaging internally said that people don’t seem to like it if their chat message isn’t responded to immediately if it says you’re “available”.

I’m guilty too.  If for someone reason I can’t reach my wife on her mobile, then rather than accepting some prosaic reason – flat battery, no coverage – I’ll leap to the conclusion that something catastrophic has happened.  We seem to have  rapidly moved from the “no news is good news” model to a paranoid, always-in-touch society.

Before mobiles were around we used to somehow manage to meet friends at prearranged times – and more importantly we handled it when they failed to show up.  I don’t recall being overly concerned that something catastrophic had occurred when this happened – we were used to the normal issues that cropped up.

Whilst I’m grateful for mobile phones having significantly increasing the likelihood of being made aware of issues when they do occur, I wonder if we’re taking it too far.  We need to move away from this crisis of “now” and accept that communication – particularly that which relies on technology - is imperfect, and asynchronous communication, like an SMS, should never expect an immediate reply.

A colleague recently quoted George Bernard Shaw:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Unread email, SMS and voice-mail messages are perhaps the modern embodiment of this sentiment.

In a future blog post I’ll outline how new services like real-time location sharing from your mobile are going to make it even harder for us to handle the situation of someone dropping off the grid.

Comments (3)

  • steve says:

    When will the SMS user get certainty of delivery. If you are roaming in a far away location and you send an SMS or vice versa there is no reliable way of guaranteeing delivery so at this stage I really have to use email which is not the most convenient. Cheers

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Steve!
    Some operators turn on SMS delivery receipts so you receive a notification when it is actually delivered to the device. I don’t think NZ operators do this – at least I’m pretty sure Vodafone doesn’t. I found this useful in London as it would tell me when the person I was waiting for had emerged from the bowels of the London Underground.
    However – does this solve the “crisis” of now? Or simply make it worse? I’d then know they’d received it, but wouldn’t have received a reply.
    Overall, your comment does reinforce the fact that SMS, email and other asynchronous messaging mediums cannot be relied on to be acknowledged by the end user – yet we all seem to wish they were! Interesting…

  • Whilst some operators have SMS delivery receipts enabled, many have either turned them off, or announced that they intend to, due to the sheer volume of SMS traffic.

    In New Zealand, with a population of 4 million, it is not uncommon for either major network operator to see 15-20 million messages pass through their network a day, and the 1 billion a day mark worldwide was crested 18 months ago.

    Whilst putting an SMS platform into play is a relatively simple and quick process these days (I recall the elation at implementing an SMS platform in a weekend ~4 years ago at Vodafone), hardware and network (fixed and wireless) resources are still a consideration.

    Of interest is that SMS was not a green fields development; it arose from someone wondering what to do with the spare capacity in GSM control channels.

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