Mediums for the messages

She could be in the grocery store, at the dry cleaners or babysitting someone else’s kids, when her mobile phone rings. She always keeps it with her. It’s not a voice on the other end but one of the 12 billion short message service deliveries made around the world each month. The message? “We’re getting a divorce.”

Until recently, this was all it took to kill off a marriage in Singapore. Muslim authorities earlier today shot down the practice, sensibly arguing that there were too many issues that needed to be discussed and resolved. It’s a victory for divorcees everywhere, but it also sheds light on the popularity of instant messaging and offers a guideline to how the application will likely evolve.

Last week Microsoft Corp. gathered media and analysts in the United States to demonstrate a slew of new tools to revolutionize electronic messaging. I wasn’t invited, but I didn’t have to be. Spare me the research studies, the focus group data; with little more than an off-hand knowledge of human nature, I can pretty much guarantee which services will be in hot demand, and which will fall by the wayside.

Take videoconferencing, for example. This is sure to resurface again as companies like Research In Motion, Ericcson, Palm and other device manufacturers search for a way to extend their product offering before they are recognized as the commodities they are. They will ignore the fact that the global videoconferencing market was expected to boom several years ago. The Gartner Group, for example, said small group conferencing systems would represent more than 80 per cent of the group systems market in 1999. If you’re out there, videoconferencers, please send me a message. It’d be great to see you.

Vendors may try to call it v-mail, or video message service (VMS) in the hopes that we will think this is some sort of fresh concept. Just a few weeks ago I watched a promotional film at HP Canada’s headquarters where a young girl took Spanish lessons through a videoconference link set up in a monitor on the refrigerator door. At one point industry experts blamed the high costs of implementing a videoconferencing solution for its failure to capture much market share. But these costs have slowly come down and customers still haven’t responded.

Wednesday’s judgement in Singapore tells us why. E-mail, instant messaging and short message service (SMS) have succeeded for two reasons. They offer users a way to communicate with each other more quickly than was possible by traditional mail, fax or any other means except voice. The other reason they have succeeded — and this is the really important point — they allow people to avoid direct contact like never before. It is becoming more common, for example, to respond to a voice-mail message by sending an e-mail in response, efficiently ducking the need to interact with someone in “real time.” Call me cynical, but there are many reasons why people prefer the distance and time electronic messaging afford them as opposed to the real “instant” messaging of physically talking to someone.

Videoconferencing, on the other hand, is up against the personal vanity of many users and essentially recreates the face-to-face experience. Apart from prison inmates and far-off relatives, there’s not a huge market for it. Similarly, America Online and other media companies have been able to offer audio chats for a long time, but they’re not likely to flip the switch anytime soon.

Legal pressure may soon see Microsoft gain access to AOL’s subscriber base. As interoperability is achieved, MS Windows Messenger will open a more competitive landscape in which features are the sole differentiator. File and application sharing holds promise, but pushing any feature that doesn’t involve simple text amounts to sending a message no one wants to hear.

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