Here Comes Trouble: Hypertext to Hypercomm

A number of key Internet innovations trace back to the notion of a text file with links to other text files, aka “hypertext.” Tim Berners-Lee got the world wide web rolling by using these “hyperlinks” to access information located on computers distributed around the world. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page counted hyperlinks among distributed information to rank search results. The linked computer files we call the Internet can take many forms (e.g. blogs, podcasts, photos and video), but real-time communication is not one of them.

Search remains an inefficient means of finding contact information. The online version of telephone directories offer only marginally better utility than the dead-tree version. Clicking a link has so far not replaced dialing telephone numbers. Address books remain a burden to create and keep current. Communication starts with the same frustrating period of looking for a telephone number and frequently ends with the same frustrating period of phone tag that existed before the Internet.

Communication engages participants more intimately than linking computer files. Moving from hypertext to “hypercomm” will require the infocomm industry to cope with privacy, authentication and trust. People prefer less communication in the absence of control. The status quo of relatively weak communication tools will persist as long as people cannot control who rings their phone. No one would be interested in buying a BMW if they did not control who gets into it. Caller ID falls woefully short in this regard.

The arrival of social networks may prove a turning point. The reluctance to post personal information diminished as soon as social networks applied friends lists (e.g. hyperlinks between people) as the basis for accessing web pages. Friends lists combined with a mechanism for linking people to their respective communication devices has the potential to make click-to-call practical. Web page links can hide the mechanics of setting up connections between devices after someone goes through the one-time step of provisioning their telephone number. If everyone provisions their telephone number as a click-to-call link, then sharing the links replaces the static information in address books.

A hypercomm application also needs a presence component. The binary online vs. offline associated with IM clients may not suffice. People need control over presence by context (e.g. topic, person and time of day). This means finding the right balance between automation and manual control that minimizes the burden and maximizes utility. In the absence of presence awareness, hypercomm applications will have a hard time moving beyond the messaging apps that already exist on social networking sites.

Linking people and their communication devices creates opportunities to search against the identifying information in social networking profiles. A search for “San Francisco” might return click-to-call links for people with the city listed somewhere in their profiles. The results might be ranked by a relevance criteria, but the mere existence of the search capability will motivate people to post more information to their profiles. Improving the prospect for discovery turns out to be a good way of encouraging people to post more information.

The Internet jumped to 10,000 end points from a mere 500 the year after the arrival of the web browser. Imagine a world where accessing web pages required “dialing” an IP address, and you have some idea the revolution that would be unleashed should hypercomm become a reality.