Being connected - communicating and organizing my life on the Internet

Posted on August 3, 2004

There are two somewhat old posts on Pedro’s weblog which got me thinking about some stuff that affect my daily life but to which I never gave that much thought. At least not structured thought.

The posts are about IM usage (Yahoo!’s in particular) and Orkut (and how it could ever be made useful).

So these are just some loosely coupled thoughts that I’ve had on those and other related subjects, and I present them separately, although on a broader view they are connected. Anyway, enough of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo and on with what’s on my mind…

First up: Instant Messaging

This part is quite dear to me. I use it every day both for work and for my personal relations and I don’t think I could go back to living without it anymore.
Sometimes you just can’t beat it for being in touch with a group of people scattered across the world. You might be doing business with them, asking for their advice, doing some debugging with them. Or you may be coordinating development with people who are far away. Or you may just use to for getting a quick question answered. Or for getting asked a quick question.
In fact it also helps me to be in touch with people who are real close to me (geographically speaking) too. Of course Email is invaluable for many things but sometimes (many times actually) a quick chat can save a ton of Email and hassle. And IRC is just too crowded and not private enough.
And it sure beats the phone when it comes to staying in touch with people. I just don’t call my friends all that much, never have. But it is just oh so easy to drop them a line on IM…
Oh yeah, and companies with an Internet connection can save a bundle in telephone bills if they just give their employees permission to use IM for their communications, but that’s something that is just too hard to get across…

Now, when people think of IM many think of Yahoo! Messenger. Most of my contacts use Yahoo! and people just love it.
I am not particularly favorable to it but in order to be accessible to everyone I have my Yahoo! account. And my AOL account. And my ICQ account. And my Hotmail account. Each one of these I use for IM only.
The point is that I have to talk to these people no matter what mechanism they use so I just use a multi-protocol client and get it over with.

Or try to get it over with, because some people are just plain unreasonable…
An so yes, I agree that Yahoo!’s common practice of changing the protocol in order to lock out other people’s software (despite their claim that it is done because of security concerns nobody really believes them) is ludicrous and in the long run bad for the company itself. People who take the time to think about it know this so maybe it is a matter of time before something changes in there. Or, more to the point, stops changing… ;-)

Still on the IM subject, I must admit that I am a big fan of Jabber because it is open, very modular, well designed, etc, and with the IETF giving it a big thumbs-up I see it sticking around for a long time but I don’t expect everyone to start using it tomorrow, so I have my jabber accounts alongside all my other IM accounts and if and when the day comes when I have no contacts on any of the other protocols I’ll just switch them off and be happy with it.

Second part: Contact management

The second part concerns managing my contacts.
It is no secret by now that I am a recent convert of the Mac clan. Also, I have been using some kind or other of PalmOS powered device for years to manage… well, my life, really.
With the advent of bluetooth-enabled mobile phones (and with a little help from iSync or some other mechanism) I now have all my contacts managed on and shared between all these devices.
But this is still not enough. Because when I think about contact management I think about managing all the information I have about each contact, and it involves the traditional address, phone number and email address, but also the IM IDs (probably multiple per person), birthdays, web pages and hosts of other bits and pieces of information.

Now I’ve never really groked social network software in general and Orkut in particular, but Pedro’s post got me thinking that maybe if, in fact, Orkut (or any other software of the kind) opened up access to it’s data via some kind of API it could then be put to good use.
It could be the base of contact management and it’s information could be integrated with whichever relevant applications you could think of. Pedro suggests exporting the birthdays into iCalendar and the IM addresses into your IM client and I think this is a good example, but it could be much more. Why not have Address Book (or a similar application) knowing about your Orkut (or similar service) account and getting information from it and letting you manage the information on it from it’s own interface? These are, of course, just some examples, I’m sure it could go much, much deeper than that.

Obviously there are more people looking at ways of making Orkut and the like useful and while some ideas are a bit far-fetched for me, like letting your friends edit your weblog some others are really cool and useful like using you Orkut (or some-such) friend list in order to white-list your Email. This last one has a particular appeal to me because this is exactly the kind of thing that I find logical. If they are your friends they should be able to get their mail to you. Of course there are some problems to be solved, address spoofing coming to mind instantaneously, but we’ll deal with them eventually.

Conclusion? What conclusion?

So how can all of this be made to work together to further our quality of living? Tall order, huh? ;-)
I’m not entirely sure and that is why this post is just a collection of loosely coupled thoughts (as I said in the begging, remember? Well, if you got this far you probably do…), but I do feel that there is a lot of potential for evolution along the lines of:

  • Integration between reputation or friends networks and contact management (my address book knows who is my friend and to what degree);
  • Integration between the said networks and automatic assignment of importance to communications between me and each contact (if I’ve never met him his messages are surely less important –_to me_– than those of my close friends);
  • Mechanisms that use that importance factor in order to filter, sort and present those communications to me when and where it is most appropriate (if he is just a loose acquaintance and I’m on “really don’t disturb” mode don’t let him bug me now, keep it until later, but always let my wife through, no matter what);
  • Integration of the communication channels and methods (I know the person has several Email accounts, several IM accounts, a mobile phone number, etc, keep that in mind);
  • Mechanisms that automatically decide (or help to decide) which particular channel or method is more appropriate in order to reach a given contact at a given moment (remember all those accounts and communication methods I know about the person? Use whichever you want, just get the message through, I couldn’t care less if you use SMS, IM, Email or whatever).

Ah, it’s good to dream, isn’t it? And the best part is that all of this is technically quite easy to achieve. The worst part, however, is that the political and economical obstacles could prove very strong so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.