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R.I.Feigenblatt - August 2005


Traditional telephony has long made remote conversation possible. This week, we focus on how text-based multiparty Internet chat functions as synchronous groupware which offers an alternative to traditional conference telephony, at lesser cost and with selective advantages, too. Auxiliary tools let one recover the simplicity of speech-based expression as well

1. Groupware as a key tool of the Internet age

We are advancing into a new age, facilitated - indeed PUSHED - by the competitive advantages that come from exploiting digital technology. Professor of Management Thomas Malone, writes in The Future of Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2004) (pages 33 and 36):
Today, anyone with access to the Internet can find -- almost immediately and often at no cost -- a greater wealth of information on many subjects than was available to even the most elite decision makers at the tops of huge organizations like IBM, General Motors, and the U.S. government only a few decades ago...

Centralization has been increasing until fairly recently, but is now beginning to decrease in many places. We can expect to see more of this decentralization whereever (a) communications costs are falling and (b) motivation, creativity, flexibility and other benefits of smallness produce business gains...

As it turns out, those two criteria hold true across huge swaths of today's economy...

One cornucopia of Internet information Professor Malone has in mind are the millions of individually crafted Web sites, speculatively created for the benefit of would-be readers - perhaps even by people who have now passed away! They are like the paper-based books of traditional society, save that they are published at virtually no cost and are available around the world any time, day or night - and without the need to pass the censorship of traditional publishers.

But books cannot answer questions you pose to them - and neither can Web pages written by an "absentee" author. Knowledgable people with good communication skills are great for that sort of thing - online, no less than in the "real" world. The online advantage is that you never need meet your helper in person to converse - so that if the only person in the world who can answer your question lives on the other side of the globe in a country you will never visit, you can STILL get in contact - as long as you have something like the Internet to mediate between the two of you. (You might even be able to leverage the coarse tool of a free online electronic translation engine if you don't share common knowledge of a human language!!!)

As we learned last week, groupware is software that facilitates communication and memory amongst more - often many more - than two people at a time. It is a particularly appropriate tool in an age where cooperation between peers is becoming increasingly important compared to subjugation to superiors. As Thomas Friedman quotes IBM vice president Irving Wladawsky-Berger in his new book, The World Is Flat:

The emerging era is characterized by the collaborative innovation of many people working in gifted communities, just as innovation in the industrial era was characterized by individual genius.

Of course one does not have to be gifted - much less a genius - to leverage the advantages of putting several heads together! Groupware allows people to do this without having to physically meet in space - or even time, which can mean enormous horizontal compression of the "Gannt Chart", as well as savings in travel and meeting-space expenses. If in the twentieth century we pitied people who could not read, because instruction for them meant an expensive in-person meeting with another party who could instruct them orally, then in the twenty-first century we will pity those who have not learned to use groupware, and so must likewise endure expensive meetings in person!

2. Synchronous group communications before the digital revolution

Multiparty telecommunications was long possible. For example, when amplifiers made continental-wide telephony practical in 1915, a ceremonial call linked four locations at once: New York City, San Francisco, the White House in Washington, D.C., and Jekyll Island, here in Georgia.
AT&T President Theodore Vail (with telephone) and guests at
his home in Jekyll Island, Georgia AT&T President Theodore Vail (with telephone) and guests at his home in Jekyll Island, Georgia during the opening ceremony of the first transcontinental telephone line
But for many decades the high cost of even simple two-endpoint long-distance telephony made serious conference calling rare.

Perhaps the most common form of multiparty telephone calls for many decades was among neighbors who happened to share a so-called party line, actually deployed in those days to save money wiring the system up. Of course their close physical proximity meant the advantage of using the telephone to talk this way was very small indeed.

With rising prosperity and falling telephone rates in the 1980's, there arose in the United States a craze in so-called 1-900 number telephone chat rooms. People were solicited, typically by television ads, to call a telephone number whereby they might socialize via conversation with others sharing a certain interest. These solicitations were often sensational, not to say salacious, and fairly high premiums were charged for the privilege of participation.

On the other hand, the business community made limited use of multipoint telephony. During the 1980's I made dozens of expensive business trips around the United States - and sometimes overseas, too - mainly for the purpose of conferencing with others. But it was only at the end of the decade that I took part in (a very few) electronic teleconferences - and none ever used more than two endpoints at that. Part of the reason teleconferencing was rare was that communications bandwidth was expensive - making it hard to share common visual experiences unless printed matter was mailed - or at least faxed - to all the conferencing locations ahead of the meeting.

3. Synchronous text-based groupware

During the 1980's there were parallel developments in another type of telecommunications technology. As we learned in earlier lessons, in that decade millions of microprocessor-based computers were deployed every year - and this led to the deployment of large numbers of modems for connecting pairs of computers over theconventional telephone system. Modems, you recall, are devices for turning telephones back into telegraph machines that can accurately and rapidly communicate text by whistling tones. Before this massive deployment in the 1980's, one of the groups most dependent on them was the deaf community, which used them to attach teletype machines to one another (portable since the 1970's) in a scheme called TDD or TTY. (Please appreciate how tragic and ironic was the long delay between the widespread use of telephony and the development of this prosthetic by a deaf physicist in 1964: Alexander Graham Bell began life carrying out a family tradition to educate the deaf - and landed up giving birth to a device that put the deaf at a grave new disadvantage for a very long time!)

So-called computer timesharing systems, in which multiple parties used a large computer simultaneously, had demonstrated the utility of allowing those parties to type messages to one another. Now that many people had individual computers communicating with telephone modems - and eventually other types of communications networks - it was natural that they would explore the ability to send live text-based messages between them.

A program of this era which has had lasting influence to this very day is called Internet Relay Chat, or IRC for short. IRC gained prominence at key junctures in history when it was used to report on the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 throughout a media blackout. It was later used in a similar fashion by Kuwaitis during the Iraqi invasion. IRC is now a very common tool for doing live text-based communication over the Internet.

One reason IRC has kept its popularity is its non-proprietary nature, (reminiscent of other software also started in Finland about that time, namely the Linux operating system.) IRC also enjoys the advantage of simplicity, which has made creating adjuncts to it simple. We will explore IRC in detail after we complete our historical survey of synchronous groupware.

But commercial parallels to IRC emerged in the 1990s as well. Among the things which helped online service America Online (AOL) boom as a business in that decade were its "chat rooms", which drew upon the successful example offered by the recreational telephone conference calls of the 1980s - not to mention the much shorter-lived recreational Citizen's Band ("CB")-radio craze of the 1970s. In an online chatroom one sees the live, progressive development of what looks like a movie or stage-play script, in which each line is labelled with the nickname of the party making that contribution. Note that such labelling can be a key advantage when a large group of people who barely know one another meet in discussion, compared to trying to hold the same conversation with a traditional telephone audio-only conference call - because you don't have to identify speakers by the sound of their respective voices.

Some have spoken of online text chat as a form of amateur improvisional theatre, as well as a means of meeting new people and conducting useful discussions. The absence of a non-textual component (in its simplest form) recalls the artistic genre of the radio play, once common in the age before television.

Early online services charged you according to how many minutes you were connected - and perhaps additional fees for doing other things. Eventually, by the mid-1990s, modem-based online services, including those which used the ever-growing Internet, leveraged the flat-rate "all-you-can-eat" business model for local residential telephony common in the United States - and offered flat-rate monthly service as well. This led consumers to connect to the Internet and stay connected online for hours - if only to avoid the delay in making the modem connection when they needed to do something. This meant Internet users who might want to talk to one another would often be online at the same time, and a new method emerged for helping them rendezvous to supplement the tradition of making an appointment to meet in a certain chat room at a certain time.

This new method is in wide use today; it works as follows. You continuously run a small "daemon" program on your PC, using the PC's ability to multitask - to run multiple programs at the same time by sharing the processor and primary memory. This small program watches when you connect to the Internet, and when you do, it periodically informs a central computer you are online. It also asks the central computer if certain of your friends - identified by their nicknames - are online at the same time. These are indicated in a control panel you can summon up at will. By such means, you know you can use your computer to communicate with any of these online friends - and a utility is provided to open just such a conversation. Starting it up causes your friend's computer to ring - or render some equivalent visual indication you are calling. Just like with a telephone, he can elect to "pick up" or answer your call, and the two of you can begin a text-based conversation. This method of chatting with people online is called Instant Messaging, or IM. An Israeli company called ICQ was an early player in this new game, and in the late 1990's it was acquired by AOL.

Today, the largest Instant Messaging systems have double-digit millions of users each. Recent study by comScore Media Metrix says that America Online has 41.6 million users, Yahoo 19.1 millions, and MSN Messenger 14.1 millions. And now Google is also getting into the act with the new Google Talk.

While in its original form it was text-based, Instant Messaging is very much like placing an old-fashioned telephone call - with a scheme for determining whether one's communication instrument (a PC and not a telephone) is connected! As we move into a world where PCs and similar digital appliances are on and connected to the Internet all the time, the analogy to traditional telephony becomes precise.

Speaking of telephones, it is now quite common to use what is called Short message service (SMS) with mobile (cellular) telephones. This is just an updated digital version of TDD/TTY tool long used by the deaf, as discussed above. But it is used by an enormous number of people, few of whom are deaf. The cited hyperlink reports that:

Short message services are developing very rapidly throughout the world. By mid-2004 texts were being sent at a rate of 500 billion messages per annum. Growth has been rapid; in 2001, 250 billion SMS messages were sent, in 2000 just 17 billion... [while] the first SMS is believed to have been sent in December 1992.

Text-based live groupware often bundles auxiliary tools to enrich the process of working together at a distance. One example is the common ability to transfer computer files between the parties. By such means, photographs, sound recordings, programs or virtually any other material may pass between them. Live groupware like IRC clients often feature the ability to create small customization programs, called macros, which help automate the process of using the program, as well as "hooks" by which the program might be integrated with other programs. Just like we eventually found it useful to hook up the telephone line to answering machines, fax machines, modems and so on, once you have a text chat client you might well find it useful to connect it to other stuff as well - for example, a program running on your computer that provides people in the chat room with an entertaining automated quiz game.

We call such a program a "chatbot", which comes from a variation on the word robot. One of the most famous chatbots is Eliza, written four decades ago by an Artifical Intelligence skeptic to parody the conversation of a Rogerian therapeutic analyst.
Robby Garner with Dr. Hugh Loebner, Atlanta 2002
Robby Garner with Dr. Hugh Loebner, Atlanta 2002
Perhaps one day a chatbot will pass the famous Turing test, which would require that its conversation would prove indistinguishable from that of an anonymous adult human being with typical faculties. There is an annual contest for the computer program which can come the closest to doing that, called the Loebner Prize Competition. It turns out that Robby Garner from Cedartown, Geogia won the competition twice in the late 1990's!

4. The (dis)advantages of text-based synchronous groupware

But why would people use chat rooms or instant messaging rather than picking up the telephone? Well, not so long ago, USA long-distance telephony was very expensive - and using text-based messaging over the Internet was a dirt cheap alternative! The burden on long-distance networks was actually radically decreased as well, because typing at 60 words per minute requires a bandwidth of only about 5 bytes/second, while speaking at 120 words per minute over a conventional telephone line used up about 8000 bytes/second - more than 1000 times as much! Even today, the economy of sending text rather than voice is why mobile-phone text-messaging is very popular in many poor countries.

So maybe President Rutherford B. Hayes (whom we met in Lesson 3) was partially right about the "dubious" merits of the telephone relative to the telegraph - at least when one can use a letter-labelled keyboard to allow ordinary people to do telegraphy without having to develop the athletic ability to make do with a single telegraph key!

Starting about a decade ago, I've made all sorts of friends and acquaintances around the world through the use of text-based chat, at virtually no expense save my time, using nothing more than a humble dial-up Internet account. You can, too!

Because text is so compact a representation of speech, it was cheap and easy to archive my online conversations - even before the plummeting cost of storing information we saw in previous lessons. That's why I have complete logs of those conversations to this day. Being in digital form, it is also easy to search them at lightning speeds and forward extracts to others as proves useful.

In his 1995 book, The Road Ahead, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote about the emergence of the Documented Life, in which the plummeting price of making and storing digital records allows even very ordinary people to record everything that has ever happened to them! My Internet text-chat logs are a humble beginning down a path like that. Imagine how such prosthetic machinery might one day potentially help a person with Alzheimer's Disease, especially when we have smarter computers which can extract meaning from such records. Or on a more pedestrian level, what that might mean for a business person or someone else who meets a great many people and might profit from getting them together one day. Or on a frightening level, how we are quite possibly gathering the very raw material which Big Brother will use to erect a dystopic totalitarian world (as he already seems to be doing even as we speak!)

Of course there are drawbacks to using text alone to conduct live conversations with other people. Where are non-verbal nuances like tone of voice and "body language"? Well, playwrights thought about that many centuries ago - and the ability to incorporate "stage directions" into computer text chat has long been common.

But, you say, another thing I like about the telephone is that I don't need to use my eyes - or my fingers - to hold a conversation. I can cradle my wireless handset or cell phone in the crook of my neck - or better yet just wear a self-supporting headset - and then go about the business of cooking, changing diapers, washing the car or whatever. I don't have time to sit at a workstation - I have a busy life!

Well, it turns out it is getting easier all the time to translate from text to speech - as well as in the other direction. Indeed, last week in class we showed videos and demonstrations of just such amazing capabilities. And as wireless systems like the cellular telephone and WiFi hotspot move toward providing ubiquitous (unharnessed) always-on connection to the Internet, the distinction between the logistics of conventional telephony and Internet access converge.

It turns out that in the late 1990's I met a legally blind woman, then living in Michigan, via an online chatroom, who was struggling to use text-based chat. I had recalled reading that some months earlier, Microsoft had made available programmable talking cartoon characters for free. How hard could it be to attach common text-based chat software to such free characters? Not hard at all - I had a working prototype that very evening.

The resulting software utility, called Ronolog to rhyme with monolog, was released at no financial cost to people via the Internet, and met with a very welcome reception.

Ronolog is actually an add-on to the most common program, called mIRC, used to particpate in Internet Relay Chat from Windows-based PCs, which comprise the overwhelming majority of PCs in the world. The author of mIRC offered these remarks when I showed Ronolog to him half a dozen summers ago:

Your ronolog is a great idea... I think you've integrated it as far as you can and it's turned out very well... I've been wanting to integrate speech with mIRC for a long time, but I really didn't know how to do it, there were so many speech utilities out there etc.
GoFurr, Microsoft Agent avatar Eventually the text-to-speech-production technology was integrated into mIRC itself, although some people are kind enough to suggest some advantages continue to exist for using Ronolog. My software eventually replaced Microsoft's parrot with a kennel of talking dogs with various alternative voices, based on a photograph of a real departed animal - who it turns out was sire to assistive dogs alive today. This cyberdog, GoFurr, eventually got a new job working in a universal Windows incremental screen reader, as you saw the other week when we visited Copy2say.

And of course it is possible to use so-called speech recognition software as well, to drive applications like Internet Relay Chat client programs in a hands-free manner. Recently, even cell-phones have started to manifest a limited ability to recognize speech using an onboard microprocessor.

The bottom line is that just because you are using text-based synchronous groupware doesn't mean you need to use your eyes and fingers to do so.

5. Going beyond text with synchronous groupware

Of course, with the continuing rapid decline in the cost of processing power, memory and communications capacity, the economies we needed to harness by restricting our synchronous groupware to text-based efforts have now abated or vanished. In recent years, Instant Messaging and related tools, whether point-to-point or multipoint, have started to include additional types of communication media, like sound (voice telephony), video and shared graphical images, including scratchpads. We will examine some such free tools in a future lesson. They hint at the amazing potential digital communications holds for helping us intimately experience remote surroundings by proxy in the years soon to come.

A possible glimpse of the future is suggested by the latest version of Sony's AIBO autonomous robot, a rich person's toy which not only can move around, but can also snap photographs and send them over the Internet via a WiFi radio connection. While use of AIBO as a mere "radio controlled" drone would in fact be a diminution of its capability, imagine what it might be like if an ordinary person could lease any of millions of capable drones distributed throughout the world and view a highly detailed video feed from same! (Perhaps a more practical platform than a small quadruped might be a robot drone built around another consumer-priced product, the Segway Human Transporter.) Of course, the military is already making wide use of aerial drones, allowing it to project power on the other side of the globe without putting human pilots in danger, or suffering the expense and other limitations of supporting them in aircraft.

5. Internet Relay Chat - classroom demonstration

In class, we will use two different IRC access tools to see what using IRC is really like. Here we simply make a minimal set of related notes.

First, we will use a Web-based client embedded in a Web site called Search IRC, which proclaims itself "The most advanced IRC search engine". It reports monitoring about 3000 independent IRC networks and typically counts about a million participants online at any given time.

The IRC client software you can launch from Search IRC uses a famous computer language born in the Internet era called Java. This program is embedded into the World Wide Web page to extend its functionality. The ambition of Java's backers is that it is multiplatform, i.e. that so-called "runtime engines" exist for a wide variety of operating systems, which enables the same program to run on all of them in exactly the same way.

A more competent IRC client is the program we had discussed earlier (in the context of Ronolog), called mIRC. It is ten years old as of last February and runs as a program on Microsoft Windows PCs. We will use class time to look at this program in detail.