Tag Archives: telecommunications

Telephones

Most of my generation who grew up in the US have always been able to take telephones for granted. My own life experience with phones is more varied. From 1967 to 1971 we lived in Bangkok, where I never used a phone. As was true for kids at the time all over the world, I didn’t need Read More…

Most of my generation who grew up in the US have always been able to take telephones for granted. My own life experience with phones is more varied.

From 1967 to 1971 we lived in Bangkok, where I never used a phone. As was true for kids at the time all over the world, I didn’t need to. My friends lived nearby, and we all wandered freely in our neighborhood. There was no need to call to arrange play dates or swims at the neighborhood pool: we’d be out for hours, and parents never seemed to worry about where we were. If we were late for dinner, they’d walk out and find us.

Phones became a factor in my life when my dad and I moved back to the US. I stayed for several periods with my aunt and cousin, out in the country in Texas. The nearest town, Coupland, had a population of about 600, most living out of sight of their neighbors on patches of land that grew crops or cattle.

The telephone rang a lot, but most of the calls were for other people: we were on a party line. You knew the call was for your phone by the specific ring, eg ring-ring pause, ring-ring pause. If you needed to make a call, you never knew whether the line was free until you picked up the phone and heard a dial tone. If it was in use, you’d hear a neighbor’s conversation. You could learn a lot about the neighbors that way (especially if you picked up the phone very quietly). It was considered very rude to eavesdrop, but friendly to greet the other parties and maybe join their conversation. If you needed the line for an emergency, you could ask the others to hang up and let you place your call. Neighbors who hogged the phone line were judged to be inconsiderate.

Home with my dad in Pittsburgh, I began to use the phone to arrange to see friends who lived across the city, or just to talk. Like everyone, we had a private line at home. I don’t remember using the phone much myself, though it was a cliché behavior of teen and pre-teen American girls to be always on the phone. Families who could afford it got multiple phone lines into their homes.

In 1974, I was thrilled to get a modern phone: a Touchtone Trimline. No more dialing a digit, waiting for the dial to roll back, dialing the next one… all you had to do was punch in the digits, one after the other, and it made funny beeping and booping sounds (you could even play simple tunes on it). We had a second phone that hung on the wall in the kitchen, though we still had only one line – now I could interrupt my dad’s calls, or he could find the line occupied by me, on our own internal party line.

Kids would make prank calls to random numbers (“Is your fridge running? Well, you’d better go catch it!”), and there were obscene phone calls – impossible for the ordinary citizen to trace, in the 1970s. (Later, there were special codes you could punch into the phone, starting with *, to trace a number that had just called you. This changed many phone behaviors.)

Local calls were free, but calls outside your own area code, let alone the country, were tremendously expensive. Most American kids wouldn’t have noticed this except maybe for the occasional call to a grandparent. For me, it was a real problem. After my parents’ divorce, my mother had remained in Thailand while my father and I returned to the US. We could not afford international calls, so my only contact with my mother was via letters, when even airmail could take weeks.

When my dad, stepmother, and I moved overseas again, to Bangladesh, I was far from my US friends as well, and had to depend on unreliable mail service to stay in touch. This included my schooling: I had to do eighth grade by correspondence school, because there was not room for me at the American school in Dhaka. All this changed when I went off to boarding school the following year – but my dependence on long, slow, paper communications did not.


next: Lines of Communication: Woodstock School in the Telecoms Age

series: Global Telecommunications: A Personal History

Global Telecommunications: A Personal History

I was born in 1962. During my lifetime, long-distance and mass communications, previously rare, expensive, and available only to a few, have become available to a large proportion of people all over the planet. The consequences, for individuals and societies, have been profound, and are still playing out as these critical tools continue to spread. Read More…

I was born in 1962. During my lifetime, long-distance and mass communications, previously rare, expensive, and available only to a few, have become available to a large proportion of people all over the planet. The consequences, for individuals and societies, have been profound, and are still playing out as these critical tools continue to spread. By 2020, 4 billion human beings (80% of adults) are expected to own a smart phone: we are headed towards what my employer, Ericsson, calls the Networked Society. What changes in the world can we expect to flow from this?

One way to guess about the future is to look at the recent past. It’s a truism to say that everyone’s life has been changed by the revolutions in communications of the last fifty years. Thanks to unusual life circumstances and a curious nature, I have spent a lot of my life on the bleeding edge of those revolutions, an early participant and sometimes instigator in previously unimaginable activities such as:

Living much of my life and career online, I have experimented with just about every possible technology as it became available, developing new methods and approaches for applying them as needed.

Tools and techniques have not changed radically in 35 years, but what could be done with them has been limited by connectivity, bandwidth, and portability. When I was born, the world’s few computers were large mainframes that lived in university or government labs. Telephones were connected via copper wires, and, in some of the places where I grew up, such as Thailand and India, there weren’t very many phones in homes when I lived there. But now we’re quickly reaching a time in which all of the world’s people will be connected to each other and to powerful computers, via handheld computers (aka smart phones), over 5G networks. I now work for a company that has been and will be making this happen.

It’s been a very interesting time to live and work through. In a series of posts, I’ll be exploring my personal view of this history over my lifetime, and a global territory.

Series

Those Anti-Social Smartphones

An ironically popular theme in social media lately is “Smartphones have made people antisocial!”, often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people who happen to be standing or sitting near each other, all heads-down, engrossed in whatever is happening on their phones. There is usually accompanying text, some sanctimonious, head-shaking statement about how Read More…

An ironically popular theme in social media lately is “Smartphones have made people antisocial!”, often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people who happen to be standing or sitting near each other, all heads-down, engrossed in whatever is happening on their phones. There is usually accompanying text, some sanctimonious, head-shaking statement about how “before smartphones, people used to actually talk to each other in public.”

Actually, they didn’t. Continue reading

Lines of Communication: Woodstock School in the Telecoms Age

When I attended Woodstock (1977-1981), communication from and within India was fraught with difficulty. Letters to foreign countries – even in Asia – took weeks. Packages arrived damaged, or not at all. (Nowadays, Indian mail is more reliable than Italian.) In my four years in Mussoorie I spoke with my parents by phone twice, I Read More…

When I attended Woodstock (1977-1981), communication from and within India was fraught with difficulty. Letters to foreign countries – even in Asia – took weeks. Packages arrived damaged, or not at all. (Nowadays, Indian mail is more reliable than Italian.)

In my four years in Mussoorie I spoke with my parents by phone twice, I think, and can’t remember now what for – there must have been some kind of emergency or urgent news.

There were only a few phones on campus, and none in teachers´ residences except perhaps the principal´s. The few we had didn’t work very well: calling across Mussoorie could take several attempts to get a line at all. Calling out of town required that a “trunk call” be booked hours in advance, and such calls were extremely expensive.

mobile phone ads, India

^ mobile phone shop posters in Landour Bazaar, Mussoorie

In 1996, Steve Ediger arrived to take on the Herculean task of bringing Woodstock into the modern age of computers and communications, just as India itself was making a great technological leap forward. 10+ years later, what wonders have been wrought!

  • Every staff home, office and dorm now has one or more phones, routed through a central switchboard – and, generally, they work.
  • This year, a new VOIP systems makes international calls dirt cheap: Rs. 3 (7 US cents) per minute. The drawback is that the kids can call out from the dorm phones only during the limited hours when they are not in school, at activities, or studying, and usually have to wait their turn to do so. With families spread around the globe, this makes for a small window of time in which they can talk to their information-starved parents (who, in this day and age, expect to be able to stay in constant touch with their kids).
  • Every staff home and residence has satellite television. Those who wish also have their own DVD players, stereos, iPod speakers, etc.
  • Most staff homes are now on campus generators, so Mussoorie’s uneven power supply doesn’t fry out all that delicate electronic equipment.
  • Most staff and many students now have cellphones. (Kids are not allowed to carry or use them during the schoolday.)

mobile phone charging station, India

^ mobile phone charging station at the Barista coffee shop in Kulri Bazaar, Mussoorie.

And, of course, Woodstock is online. In 1998 I helped to create the school’s first website (the site has come a long way since then), and I trained staff members in web basics such as AltaVista search – on a connection that was so slow we had to turn off images in the browser in order to load a page at all.

Today the school has about 300 computers connected to the Internet, sharing only 2 mbps of bandwidth among them. This is (barely) enough for general business and school use, but can’t stand up to today’s video-heavy websites, especially at those times of day when students are free to surf, email, etc.

The problem is that bandwidth is still expensive in India (for lack of competition): it would cost at least $100,000 per year to get 8 mbps (ADSL) for the whole campus; by comparison, I can reliably get 7 mbps at my home in Italy for €39 per month. At these prices, no wonder India lags in Internet adoption.

This situation is bound to improve: perhaps the long-promised fibre-optic cable to the school will finally be delivered, or maybe WiMax will come to India (this would be a better long-term solution than cables, which in rural India are frequently inadvertently dug up or cut). I look forward to the day when both the school and the country can enjoy the full benefits of this critical piece of modern infrastructure.

Steve Ediger with Woodstock servers

^ 2004: Steve Ediger shows off his server room. I trust my Sun colleagues will note what is wrong with this picture! ; )

article: Woodstock School: Education for a World of Difference on Dell/EMC Storage (go to page 22)

^ top: even Jabarkhet has satellite


this post is now part of a series: Global Telecommunications: A Personal History

25 Years Online: Communicating on the Internet Since 1982

Note: This is a heavily revised version of an article that I originally wrote around 2001, now updated for this year’s “significant” anniversary. 25 years online seems like a milestone worth marking! I can say without hubris that I have a talent for communicating online. Which shouldn’t be surprising: I’ve been doing it for over Read More…

Note: This is a heavily revised version of an article that I originally wrote around 2001, now updated for this year’s “significant” anniversary. 25 years online seems like a milestone worth marking!

I can say without hubris that I have a talent for communicating online. Which shouldn’t be surprising: I’ve been doing it for over 25 years.

Compuserve

It began in January, 1982, while I was a student at the University of Texas. My father bought me my first computer, a Commodore Vic 20. For those who don’t remember, this was a computer built into a keyboard (you had to use a TV for a monitor). It had maybe 16 kilobytes of RAM, and there was no long-term memory; I remember perusing ads in early computer magazines for a “stringy floppy” – a way to use a cheap cassette recorder for long-term storage. Games and peripherals came in the form of hardware cartridges that plugged into the side of the unit.

Commodore Vic 20, Computer History Museum

My dad’s excuse for buying this thing was that I should learn computer programming, though the actual reason was that he wanted to play video games while convalescing from knee surgery in my living room.

Having already proven my complete lack of programming talent in a Pascal course my freshman year of college, I didn’t get far with programming the Vic 20: I could print my name to the monitor in different colors, and that was about it. I wasn’t very good at Space Invaders, either. But we had also bought a modem, and that was how I found out what computers are really for.

There must have been a coupon in the box, because I joined CompuServe, at that time the province of a few thousand elite geeks (though I guess we weren’t elite enough or geeky enough to have already discovered the joys of online via ARPANET).

Compuserve in the early 80's, Computer History Museum

And the first thing I found on CompuServe was the chat rooms. The analogy used for online chatting in those days was CB radio (anyone remember that?), so everyone was encouraged to use a “handle” instead of a real name.

I have said that I’m no good at programming. One thing I am good at is finding the bugs in other people’s programs. I somehow, inadvertently, managed to enter CompuServe’s chat rooms the first time via a back door. As I entered, the system asked for my name (instead of a handle). So I typed in my real name. By the time I realized my (or the system’s) mistake, my fate was sealed: everybody knew me as Deirdre’, and I have simply been myself online ever since.

(Just as well. I wouldn’t have known what alias to use anyway; I have spent so much of my life explaining how to spell and pronounce my name that I now cling to it stubbornly – accept no substitutes!)

I was immediately popular in the chats, because in those days men vastly outnumbered women, and I was young and single (and said so). One guy told me that he thought it was because Deirdre’ in print looks rather like “Desire”, and because I wrote well. An added advantage was that I could type fast!

It was all pioneer territory in those days, and there weren’t many of us, so we went to some trouble to get together in person. About a dozen met in Austin, then some of the same group, plus others, met in Dallas. True to our geekiness, our big activity during that trip was going to see Return of the Jedi, though we’d all already seen it at least once. (One of the guys was Filipino; he told us that at some points the Ewoks are speaking Tagalog: “Oh, what a beautiful golden thing!” they say upon seeing C3PO.) It was one of the CompuServe crowd who introduced me to the concept of fan fiction.

The photo at the top of this page, added Jan 6, 2008, shows the old CompuServe crowd, circa 1983. Photo passed on by Ken, from the site of Mike Stickles (in the orange striped shirt) who, sadly, passed away a few days ago. He was, among other things, a piece of Internet history: he and “Silver”, seated together center, were the first people to have met and married online.

Time magazine ran an article in 1984 titled: X-Rated: The Joys of CompuSex. Of course they had to emphasize all the sensational elements, and end on a sour note about a woman who “grew so addicted to CompuSex that her husband walked out.”  The mainstream media today are still fond of studies “proving” that people who spend a lot of time online are lonely introverts who can’t deal with real life.

As for me, I didn’t have much time to get addicted. CompuServe cost $6 an hour, and after some months my dad got tired of paying the bills. Cheap/free local BBSs just weren’t good enough, so I was offline. But my online education had been well launched.

In 1984, while visiting my dad in Jakarta, Indonesia, I worked for six months in the Commerce section of the US Embassy there. I did various secretarial work on a Wang word processing system (I had previously learned word processing on a self-contained Philips terminal, and electronic typesetting on a machine the size of a refrigerator). The Wang was a centralized, mainframe-type system with terminals and tractor-feed printers that were always jamming.

Because all the terminals were linked to a central server, the Wang could be used to broadcast messages to every terminal in the embassy, or to send a message directly to anyone whose logon name you knew. The feature wasn’t obvious; I noticed it when an announcement was broadcast to us all. I wanted to use it to send messages to my friends, but couldn’t figure out how to originate a message. I asked the system administrator, who sniffily told me that messaging was not for use by plebeians like myself.

That wasn’t enough to deter a curious mind. The next time a broadcast came through, I noticed that the menu at the bottom of the message included reply options. One of those options got me into the message system. I could then send private messages to my friends: as long as we kept the system open by replying to each message, we could use it to originate new messages whenever we wanted. My first system hack!

The admin never noticed until one of my friends made a mistake. We had just returned from an island weekend with a bunch of Marines (don’t ask), and she tried to send me a mildly obscene message reminiscing about it. She hit the wrong menu choice, and broadcast her message to the entire Embassy. The first person to see it was the Ambassador, who was not amused.

I wasn’t online regularly again until 1993, when the book Fabrizio Caffarelli and I wrote together (“Publish Yourself on CD-ROM”) was published. It was one of the first books in the world published with a CD-ROM, which contained a demo version of Easy CD 1.0, and a screen-readable version of the book itself.

I had wanted to publish the electronic version of the book in Adobe’s new PDF format (which I’d heard about in the course of my work as a journalist for Italian computer magazines), but that wasn’t quite ready at the time. I used instead the same FrameMaker software I’d used to lay out the book, along with a hypertext reader supplied by Frame – I negotiated the rights to include this on our CD, which I believe was the first publication to use it. (That company is now owned by Adobe).

Designing the electronic version of the book was also a formative experience: I became adept at hypertext long before I saw the Web.

The book mentioned our CompuServe address and that we’d be glad to hear from readers. Hear from them we did, because the disc didn’t work! Something had gone wrong in manufacturing, and no one at Random House had thought to test the disc before binding it up with the book.

That was my first experience with online customer service. I was just sick over the whole situation, but Random House quickly had a working disc duplicated, and arranged shipping so that anyone who contacted them could get a replacement quickly. Once this fix was in place and easily obtainable, I was pleasantly surprised at how forgiving our readers were. In a way it was a bonus, because the mistake spurred people to get in touch with us who otherwise would never have bothered.

By then I was working full-time for Fabrizio at Incat Systems, writing software documentation. I spent time with customers on CompuServe, mostly because I enjoyed it, but I also suspected that it would become important someday. (I vividly remember sitting in the back of a bus on my way to work in Milan, reading a Seybold Report about the World Wide Web – the first I’d ever heard of it. That memory sticks oddly in my mind; even then, I guess, I sensed that the Web was going to be big in my life.)

My early online activities for Incat consisted in hanging out in the relevant CompuServe forums (I eventually started a section just for our software) and answering email.

The Internet

All my best ideas about supporting customers online came from the customers themselves. It was a customer who suggested that I get out on the Usenet to defend our products; that’s where I first met Dana Parker, another of the three “grandmothers of CD-R” (the third is Kathy Cochrane). Dana and I locked horns at first, and for a while I was convinced that she was a man – the only other Dana I’d known had been male.

When Incat was bought by Adaptec in 1995, I had already begun creating Web pages, in hopes that with the new company we’d be able to get them online. (I had been searching for a web host for Incat; one early provider told me frostily that our company was far too small to afford their services.) I had created 30 pages about CD-R technology and our software, using Microsoft Word’s then-minimal HTML capabilities, and what I already knew about hypertext.

I arranged a meeting to show my pages to the person then in charge of the Internet at Adaptec. I didn’t contradict her when she commented on the amount of work that must have gone into these pages, but then she said casually: “I understand that you also do other things for Incat?” Er, um, yeah… all of the software documentation, usability, and a lot of the marketing materials. She never forgave me for that.

It took six months after the acquisition to transition some of my activities to other departments at Adaptec, including the documentation I had been doing. I didn’t mind getting out of writing manuals; I’d been doing it long enough to be bored. But I had no idea what Adaptec intended to do with me, nor, apparently, did they. Somewhat randomly, they stuck me in marketing. I met my new boss, Dave Ulmer, in February of 1996.

I couldn’t have been luckier. I told Dave what I’d been doing online (CompuServe, Usenet, answering email, web pages) and he said: “Fine, do more of that.” And that’s about all the direction he ever gave me. He not only understood the Usenet, he was frequently and visibly out there himself.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Nov 16, 2013 – New photos added from yesterday’s visit to the Computer History Museum, which I highly recommend.


this post is now part of a series: Global Telecommunications: A Personal History