Lamont Wood is a Texas-based free-lance writer specializing in
computers. He composes on a Southwest Technical Products 6809 that he
Today, with a personal computer's telecommunications ability, we can access data bases, send Telex messages, make bank payments and receive mail-just by hitting a few keys on a keyboard. But someday soon the investments of the heavy rollers among the largest corporations, working in tandem with AT&T, will actualize the vision of home computers as information appliances attached to telephone lines.
Except that home phones are still analog. For a computer to communicate over phone lines, you have to use a modem. Most home users have modems capable of 300 baud (30 characters per second). Most business systems use 1,200 baud. Leased lines are necessary to communicate at 9,600 baud. These relatively slow transmission speeds limit the practicality of much of the futuristic capabilities touted for the home computer. Why slowly download news stories when for a quarter you can buy a newspaper with fifty thousand words?
In effect, the telephone's century-old technology is throttling the future of the home computer industry. Why aren't all phones digital so that home computers could be directly attached and communicate at much higher speeds?
But the digital phone does exist. Today, right now, you can get office phone systems that are completely digital. The signals are converted to analog only when they pass through the company's PBX and into the outside phone lines. (A PBX, incidentally, is a private branch exchange, e.g., the company switchboard that allows all the internal phones to share a limited number of outside lines.) The office computers can talk to each other over the office phone lines. Just plug them into the phone outlets, teach them to dial each other's extensions, and voila!-they're communicating with each other at 64,000 baud. Or actually 56,000 baud, since 8,000 has to be reserved for control purposes, but this is still a long way from 300 baud.
The phone companies are already using high-speed digital trunk lines to connect some central exchanges. If your office is located near one of these exchanges, you can connect your digital PBX directly to the phone company's digital central office, where your voice will become analog.
The day local subscribers are offered digital phones is not far off. With divestiture, the offspring of AT&T can feel the hot breath of competition on their necks for the first time. These AT&T orphans will be offering a whole gamut of new products and services-lest someone else do it first.
Can We Talk?
Many office digital phones already have a one-line digital readout that can display the number of a caller within the office system (but not from the outer analog world). Just think of the implications if this technology is implemented nationwide. Stripped of anonymity, obscene callers, kidnappers and would-be terrorists would have to fall back on postcards. Computer hackers could expect to get caught. (They can expect to anyway, since they use digital switching networks.)
Answering the phone could become a major decision as you struggle to remember whose number is showing on the display and whether this person is owed any money. If you decide not to answer, the caller need not feel neglected: after all, since the digital phone is a small computer, it is capable of considerable memory and can store digitized voice messages. On the other hand, if the party you're trying to reach doesn't answer, you can record a message digitally and let the phone keep trying until it finally gets through to deliver your spiel. The other party can respond in like manner, and pretty soon a conversation will have been held without anyone talking to each other.
Of course, if the phone has a digital readout, you could just as well leave a one-line written message for a caller-or, for that matter, a message of any length that could be read one line at a time. This, however, would require that the phone have some kind of alphabetical keyboard. (Phones with keyboards and CRT screens are now available from several sources.)
If the phones are going to be small computers with digital readouts, you could easily do away with the problem of wrong numbers by incorporating something like the "answer-back" mechanism that the Telex network has used for decades. Even before it rang, your phone would transmit its answer-back (its number or the owner's name) and the caller would know if he had the right party. Of course, you would be able to program the computer/phone to ignore all calls except from numbers on a list you've fed into it.
If the phone is going to be programmable, there should be no end to the feats you can pull off. You should be able to have the computer/phone call you at a dinner party if it detected any loud noises back home. And with the increasing computerization of household appliances, you should be able to tie them in to the phone so you can call home and start the oven for supper by tapping in the right numbers on the keypad.
Not that there will be any real reason to leave the house. With the right peripherals, shopping will be no problem. Merchants will be able to fax their catalogs over the phone. And you'll be able to use the phone to make the bank transfers to pay for the stuff. Indeed, whole appliance factories could be rigged to "build on order."
As for telecommuting, its popularity will probably depend on the severity of the next energy crisis. If things get to the point where everybody is riding bicycles to computerized offices, it might make more sense to have employees stay home with a terminal. Employees whose jobs require interaction with other people could have speaker phones on their desks at home and arrange for mass conference calls.
A brave new world is evolving, one in which Everyman will have access to enormously powerful telecommunications facilities. But we'll have to wait. Most likely it will be a decade before digital phones take over completely-and who knows how many years before the full social implications are felt.
PUBLISHING BY PHONE
Looking forward to the glorious day when we'll all have digital phones working at 56,000 baud, let's see how our current pipe dreams will be implemented in a field as mundane as publishing.
Nowadays, publishers agonize over which books to print. They pay a bunch up front to print the ones they select, then they pray that their salesmen can get the stores to accept them-and that the public will buy them. But today there are available. high-speed, highquality computer printers whose output looks like it came from an offset, cold-type printing plant. Instead of risking all their money on inventory, why couldn't the publishers park one of those printers in each bookstore?
Any buyer could thumb through the catalog, fondle a few sample copies and order a selection. The clerk could dial up the publisher, who could download the book into the printer, which could print and bind it while the customer waited. (This is not science fiction. You could rig it up today if you could get a high-speed data connection. The trick would be the while-you-wait bookbinding.)
The 65,000 words contained in the average novel could be transmitted at 56,000 baud in little more than a minute. And graphics? Modern digital fax machines can reduce the average page to 200,000 bits, which would take four seconds. If the publisher wanted color art for the cover, the page would be transmitted four times-once for each of the primary colors and once for black.
The result: books would be "built to order" with no publisher inventory at all, except for "demonstrator models." With the risk reduced, we could expect to see more books published and a greater choice for the public. The term "out of print" would become as obsolete as the printing press.
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