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Fewer Phones, Dumber Terminals, Smarter Attention Sentries

"Arguing in My Spare Time" No. 17

by Arnold Kling

May 18, 2001

This is my attempt to speculate on the impact of widespread availability of high-speed wireless connectivity. I am not suggesting when this state of Bandwidth Utopia will be achieved. What I am trying to do is guess the impact of BU, if and when it should occur.

Fewer Phones

By my count, our family has two phones per capita. There are six phones in our house, we have two cell phones, and Jackie and I each have a phone in the respective offices where we work.

We have five phone numbers (one home phone number, two cell phone numbers, and the phone numbers at our two offices), and our home and my office both have phone lines dedicated to computers for dialing into the Internet. Just for local phone service, we receive four different phone bills a month--and we do not get a bill for Jackie's office phone.

Even with two phones per capita, we can have a shortage of available phones. When all of us are home, no more than three of us can be on separate calls. With two adults and three teenage girls, the limit of three calls can constitute a constraint.

With BU, I could see us cutting back to one phone per capita. We would get rid of our home phones and office phones. Instead, each of us would have our own cell phone, with a unique phone number. Cutting back to one phone per capita would mean that when I ask for your phone number you no longer rattle off a daytime phone, an evening phone, a cell phone, and a number for a pager.

Of course, when we have BU, you might not need to know someone's phone number. Your phone might access an online database to find the person's number without your having to know it. Just as I do not have to know your IP address to find your web site, I should not have to know your phone number to connect with your phone. However, the ready availability of phone numbers would give rise to attention-theft issues, which will be addressed below.

Dumber Terminals

Under BU, I do not want a personal digital assistant. I do not even want a personal computer. I may want some private space on a server that I can use for storage and processing. But I want my computer resources to be located in a data center. I want to use a dumb terminal that can show screen images, play sounds, and transmit keystrokes and mouse movements.

With BU, my dumb terminal will be connected to a "home" server that performs data storage and processing functions remotely. There are servers from Citrix that have this capability today.

I want this because

There are (at least) a couple of possible objections to adopting dumb terminals when there is BU.
  1. You want to be able to do work even when the computer network goes down.

    Well, I think that we should be able to develop enough confidence in networks so that this fear will disappear. Keeping a personal computer around in case the network fails is a bit like keeping a typewriter around in case the printer breaks. Printers do break, but by now most people have decided that this is not a contingency that justifies reverting to typewriters.

  2. You do not want the IT bureaucrats to be in control, the way they were the last time we had dumb terminals, in the mainframe era.

    This concern ignores a critical difference between dumb terminals connected to the Internet and dumb terminals connected to a mainframe. With the mainframe, your IT department has monopoly power to decide what functions are available. With the Internet, you can choose any supplier of disk space and applications.

My dumb terminal would not know how to run Java or even how to browse the web. It only knows how to refresh my screen, so whatever web pages I see are those that are captured by a browser at my "home" server and sent to my dumb terminal. This could create a problem for web pages designed with client-side programs (Java, JavaScript, plug-ins, etc.). Those types of programs either must be executed on my "home" server or on the server providing the Web page.

The dumb terminal that I carry with me actually could have some pretty fancy capability. Basically, it might be an ordinary cell phone. However, whenever I have enough surface area and enough power available, I can attach devices to make it more powerful. I could add a tablet screen. I could add a keyboard. In an office or hotel room, I could connect to a high-resolution monitor. In my home, I might connect to high-quality speakers and a screen suitable for viewing movies.

Because my dumb terminal is flexible, I can easily move back and forth between text and voice conversations. I might start a dialog in email, but then my friend and I may decide to switch to voice.

Smart Attention Sentries

So far, the vision of BU has focused on personal communication. I have not incorporated "shopping alerts" or "stock market alerts." That should not be surprising. What should be counterintuitive is the fact that there actually are people who think that those are killer applications.

The fundamental error that plagues most visions of BU is the assumption that we will desire more demands on our attention. In fact, the biggest issue with BU will be our ability to control the demands on our attention.