Category Archives: Internet

A new perspective?

Like everyone else, I’ve been having a bit of a play with ChatGPT. There have been some nice examples recently of people asking it questions and getting answers that are grammatically correct, well-presented, completely plausible, and completely wrong.

That didn’t happen to me. There was one question I felt I ought to ask it, and it gave a mostly correct response, though its description of the Trojan Room wasn’t quite right. Overall, though, not bad. But it was the last sentence that took me by surprise:

Screenshot of response to What was the first webcam? The first webcam was created at the University of Cambridge in 1991. It was installed in the Trojan Room, a computer laboratory in the university's department of engineering, and
was used to monitor the condition of a coffee pot. This way, researchers working in the lab
could check remotely whether there was coffee available without having to physically go
to the room to check. The webcam's feed was made available online, making it one of the
earliest examples of a web-based surveillance system.

Well, yes, I suppose it was a surveillance system, though no human has used that phrase to me before when describing it!

Perhaps it’s only natural, though, that a machine should think of things chiefly from the point of view of the coffee pot?

Proboscidea

I’ve started playing a bit more with Mastodon.

For some of you, Mastodon will be old news — I’ve had a Mastodon account for four years, but haven’t really used it before — but many more, I imagine, will be saying, “Mastodon? Never heard of it!” I think you probably will be hearing a lot more about it, though, very soon, so I wanted to make sure you heard it here first!

At its simplest, Mastodon is a social network/microblogging platform rather like Twitter. And it’s getting a lot of attention at present as people are leaving Twitter, or at least exploring alternatives, because they don’t like what Elon Musk is doing with it or what they fear he might do in the future. I’m reserving judgement on that for the moment, but Mastodon has apparently gained about a million users in the last couple of weeks.

So what does Mastodon have going for it, apart from not being under Elon’s control? Well, a proper answer to that would be really quite long, but here are a few key points:

  • Mastodon is not run by any single company. It is not driven by profit as its primary motivation.

  • The feed(s) you see are based purely on whom you follow, and not on somebody else’s algorithm. There’s essentially no spam or advertising, at least for now, and it’s much less likely in the future.

  • Mastodon is ‘federated’, meaning that it consists of lots of servers talking to each other. Many people sign up to one of the big ones like ‘mastodon.social’ — you can find me as @quentinsf@mastodon.social — but there are lots of other options. Some servers (or ‘instances’) are built around particular interests or regions, others may be run by companies or other communities. Each server is moderated and managed by the people who run it, and one view you can choose shows you the new content from people on your instance.

  • But you can follow, and be followed by, people on any instance, not just the one you’re on. The best analogy here is email: a large number of people choose to use gmail.com, but they can still send and receive emails to people on any other email server. You can choose to get your email service from Fastmail or Microsoft or Yahoo or you can run your own server. (Running a Mastodon instance — e.g. for your company — is rather easier than running an email server!)

  • You can have multiple accounts on multiple instances and switch between them easily. If you decide to move somewhere else, you can leave a forwarding address so people will find you, and you can even arrange that all your followers will follow you automatically. (Your actual posts are stored on the instance, though, so your history doesn’t come with you to the new place.)

  • For the technically-inclined, Mastodon instances communicate using an open protocol called ActivityPub, which is also used by other systems such as NextCloud and PeerTube, and I suspect we’ll see it adopted more widely soon. For example, I’ve installed a plugin for this blog, so it can publish using ActivityPub. As well as following me as @quentinsf@mastodon.social, you can get notified of posts on this blog by following @qsf@statusq.org. (Please do!) If all goes well, this post will be one of the first I publish that way! The feed will be entirely independent of any other organisation, but you can still choose to follow it through, for example, any Mastodon apps or websites.

What I like about this stuff is that, to me, it feels more like the way the internet was in the early days, and the way it should be: people running or choosing their own servers, and people reading and subscribing to content based on their own preferences and not on the profit-maximising algorithms of big American or Chinese corporates.

I hope it flourishes.

TikTok: Trojan Stallion

This is a great post by Scott Galloway warning about the influence of TikTok. Some have accused it of fear-mongering, but do read the whole thing and see what you think. Here are a few key points:

  • TikTok has over a billion users. This includes ‘nearly every U.S. teenager and half their parents’. The average monthly hours spent on it per user are way higher than for the other social networks. And the amount of data gathered about every interaction is vast.

  • All of its data are readily available to the Chinese government. TikTok is not actually allowed to operate in China, though, so this is purely data gathered about people in the rest of the world.

  • “Facebook is the most powerful espionage vehicle ever created and now China commands the most powerful propaganda tool”. The Russians have become very good at manipulating Facebook and Twitter, but the process is still much harder for Putin than it is for Xi Jinping.

So, Galloway warns, small changes in the configuration of the TikTok algorithms — just a thumb resting on the scale — can have a massive influence:

Dial up wholesome-looking American teens with TikTok accounts railing against the evils of capitalism. Dial down the Chinese immigrant celebrating the freedoms afforded in America. Push Trump supporter TikToks about guns and gay marriage into the feeds of liberals. Find misguided woke-cancel-culture TikToks and put them in heavy rotation for every moderate Republican. Feed the Trumpists more conspiracy theories. Anyone with a glass-half-empty message gets more play; content presenting a more optimistic view of our nation gets exiled. Hand on scale.

The network is massive, the ripple effects hidden in the noise. Putting a thumb the size of TikTok on the scale can move nations. What will have more influence on our next generation’s view of America, democracy, and capitalism? The bully pulpit of the president, the executive editor of the New York Times, or the TikTok algorithm?

Sobering stuff…

Thanks to the footnotes in John Naughton’s Observer column for the link.

Zoom calls of the past

Rose is moving from her current college office to a new one. In the bottom of a drawer, she found a Zoom modem.

For younger readers, this is a 56K modem, which means that on a really good day, you could transfer data to and from the network at 56 kilobits per second: that’s about 6 kilobytes/sec, once overheads are taken into account. This was pretty much the peak of telephone-based internet access, until ADSL came along.

Also in the same drawer was a floppy disk, which holds around 1.4MB. (I used to boot my first Linux system off one of these.)

So, to transfer the contents of this disk to the network using the modem, if you had a good reliable phone line, would take you about 4 minutes.

Now, the two originals of the photos above, which I snapped with my iPhone, between them take 7MB, or about 5 of those floppy disks, so to send the two still images would have taken around 20 minutes. (Not that we had digital still cameras at all back then, of course.)

This is why, when James T Kirk makes a call from his quarters to the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s almost always an audio call, and on the rare occasions when video is involved, they make sure they show you – it was such a wildly futuristic idea, even within the same starship!

Nobody, even on Star Trek, was daft enough to suggest he might make such a call from his communicator.

Signalling virtue

Dear Reader,

Can I encourage you to try something today? Go to Signal.org and get hold of the Signal messaging app, and/or go to your app store and download Signal for your phone. And while it’s downloading, come back here and I’ll tell you why I’ve become so fond of it, and why you might actually want another messaging app.

To put it in a nutshell, Signal is like WhatsApp but without selling your soul. Imagine what a good time Faust would have had without that awkward business with the Devil, and you get the idea. Well, OK… you don’t quite have to sell your soul to Facebook to use WhatsApp, but you do have give away your privacy, your friends’ privacy, endure a lot of advertising, and so forth. (More info in an earlier post.)

For Apple users, Signal is rather like Messages, which I also like and use a lot, but you can use Signal with your non-Apple friends too, on all of your, and all of their, devices.

Signal:

  • is well-designed and nice to use.
  • runs on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux, tablets, desktop and mobile.
  • uses proper end-to-end encrypted communications, unlike some alternatives such as Telegram.
  • is Open Source, so if you doubt any aspect of it, you can go and see how it works.
  • is free: supported by grants and donations. No advertisements.
  • allows most of the interactions you expect on a modern messaging service: group chats, sharing files and images, audio and video chat, etc.

Now, of course, it has the problem that all networks initially have: what happens if none of my friends are on it? And yes, that can be an issue, but it’s becoming less so. When I first signed up, I think I knew about three other users. Now, over 100 of my contacts are there, and more arrive every week. When I see them pop up, I send them a quick hello message just to welcome them and let them know I’m here too. It’s a bit like wondering if you’re at the wrong party because you know so few people here, and then over time more and more of your friends walk through the door.

How do you find them? Well, like WhatsApp, Signal works on phone numbers, and when you sign up you have the option to let it scan your contacts list and see if any of them are on Signal too. Unlike Facebook/WhatsApp, however, your contacts’ details aren’t transmitted to the company’s servers and used to build the kind of personal profiles that FB keeps even on people who aren’t members.

Signal instead encrypts (hashes) the phone numbers in your contacts, truncates the encrypted form so it can’t be used to match the full phone number, sends those truncated versions to their servers, and if it finds matches for any truncated other account numbers it sends the encrypted possible matches back to you for your app to check. Security experts will realise that this isn’t perfect either, but it’s so much better than most of the alternatives that you can be much more comfortable doing it. Here’s a page talking about it with a link to more detailed technical descriptions about how they’re trying to make it even more secure. And here’s the source code for all their software in case you don’t trust what they say and want to check it out for yourself.

So in recent months, if I’ve wanted to set up group chat sessions to discuss the care of an elderly relative, or plan a boating holiday with friends, or discuss software development with colleagues in another timezone, I tell people that I disconnected from Facebook a few years back so I don’t do WhatsApp, but have you tried Signal? It’s pretty much the same, with all the bad bits taken out, and works much better on the desktop and on tablets, in my now-rather-dated experience, than WhatsApp ever did.

So give it a try, and if you find that not many friends are there, don’t delete it. Just wait a bit… and tell all your friends about this post, of course!

The Christmas Lights Fallacy

Just twenty years ago, there was a popular factoid doing the rounds:

Half of the world’s population have never used a telephone.

I was working on technology for the developing world at the time, and this came up occasionally at conferences and other discussions. It was repeated by Kofi Annan, Al Gore, Belinda Gates, Newt Gingrich…. It was one of those facts that was shocking enough to be interesting, but believable enough to make you think of the implications. You may think you’re in the midst of the dot-com boom, but remember that half the world has never even made a phone call…

But, as I blogged at the time, Clay Shirky went and did some research, and found that, actually, the statistic was first used in 1994, and, even if it had been true then, it certainly wasn’t by the time everyone was quoting it in the early 2000s. Seven years, it turned out, was a very long time in technology.

I was thinking of this today as I read Charles Arthur’s nice analysis of another recent assertion: that Bitcoin may use a lot of energy, but not as much as everybody’s Christmas lights! It’s a fun fact to surprise your friends with at the pub, perhaps, but, as Charles found out, it’s not quite grounded in reality. Take a look.

Sometimes it’s very good to have proper journalists around.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about an animation?

I’ve often joked that there are lies, damned lies, statistics and web statistics!

You’d have thought that when a web browser connects to a web server, you’d be able to count simple things like the number of visitors to your site with some accuracy, but it turns out to be rather complicated by caches at both ends, by search engines and other automated systems checking your site, by proxies and firewalls and VPNs and pre-loading and… well, you get the idea.

And it can get more difficult when you try to make generalisations about the web as a whole. Take the question of which web browser is the most popular. The browser generally tells the server, so you can come up with some numbers. But which servers’ numbers should you use? Those visited mostly by teenagers? By tech enthusiasts? By business people, or by mobile users? You’ll get very different numbers.

I use Safari for most things, and at the time of writing, these summary tables on Wikipedia will tell you that it has a share of about 3%, if you’re looking at desktop browsers as reported by NetMarketShare, somewhere around 40% if you’re looking at tablet-based browsers reported by StatCounter, and between 14% and 24% if you’re looking at browser usage overall, depending on whom you believe. So this figure is one to be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt than most.

Having said all that…

I do like this animation of web browser usage stats by James Eagle. For young people, it’s a history lesson, and for those of us who have lived through it and been intimately involved with it, this simple graphic encapsulates three decades of development and progress, of nostalgia and relief, of corporate battles and legal battles, of innovation and frustration, and of careers and companies born, thriving and expiring. Nicely done.

Here’s a link to James’s original tweet.

Required Reading? Oh yes.

To live in the modern world, you need to understand social networks. That’s not the same as using them; you can understand them without using or wanting to use them, and you can quite happily use them without actually understanding how they work at all. In fact, I would suggest, most people do, and that ignorance is amongst the bigger problems facing the world today.

Fortunately, we have a good antidote to it, in Charles Arthur’s latest book “Social Warming: The dangerous and polarising effects of social media”. I think it is superb.

Arthur is a highly-respected writer and journalist of long standing, but it’s still quite an achievement to produce a book which is nicely written and enjoyable to read, yet simultaneously extremely serious and important.

The title draws an analogy with global warming: there’s no one single massive event that causes climate change: it’s the result of millions of small actions and interactions taking place all over the planet for an extended period. And the mechanisms which drive social networks, which make them tick, also seem mostly harmless at the level of individual interactions, but they too accumulate to have enormous impact. We remain in ignorance of them at our peril… until perhaps one day we’ll find things have gone too far.

The dramatic cover might lead you to think this is going to be a shocker: a breathtaking exposé of corporate evils, which you can only escape by banning Facebook from your life forever. In fact, however, it is a rational explanation of the algorithms social networks have found to be effective in driving ever-greater engagement of the audience (and hence ever-greater revenues for their shareholders). And it’s a journey through numerous examples of the impact these mechanisms have actually had in key situations in different parts of the world.

The phrase “required reading” is a somewhat clichéd one, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, but I think it may be appropriate here. Perhaps, though, I should moderate it a bit. This book should be considered required reading if you post to social networks, read social networks, have any close friends or family who use social networks, read papers or watch media where the journalists get information from social networks, meet people whose approach to global pandemics depends on what they read on social networks, live in a country where voting is heavily influenced by social networks, or have kids growing up in a world dominated by social networks.

The rest of you don’t need to read it.


‘Social Warming’ can be purchased from Amazon and many other sources, with hardback, Kindle and audiobook versions available now, and paperback to follow in the spring.

University of Cambridge abandons open standards for proprietary ones, and starts to pay the price

A few years ago, the ‘University Information Services’ (UIS) team at Cambridge made the decision that the University would no longer run its own email service — something it had done since email began — and instead was going to outsource it to a commercial entity.

This in itself, I think, was probably a mistake, because email is enormously important, not just as a communication method, but as an archive. Many people make this mistake. “We use Slack for our internal chat, we use Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Zoom for our external communications. We hear some old people still use email, but why is that any different?”

Email, though, for most people, is not just an instant-messaging system. It’s a store, a journal, a database, a record, of decisions made, invoices received, relationships formed, ideas generated, news exchanged, and so on. I have most of my email for the last thirty years or so, and find it incredibly valuable. Last year, I wrote a post about why I think it’s one of our most successful and important data archive formats, and its success for so long, when compared with almost anything else, has depended substantially on open standards and Open Source software.

Running an email server is easy. Doing it well, however, is not, and requires expertise and dedicated staff. In the past, I have run my own personal server, and we also did this in one of my startup companies. (In both cases these were based on the excellent, widely-used and highly-regarded Exim software which was, ironically, developed here at Cambridge in that same UIS department!) But these days there are lots of good hosting services, and it doesn’t normally make sense for most organisations to run their own.

The University of Cambridge is not, however, a small organisation, and surely it should really be willing to employ the skilled staff and provide the resources to run its own email system, in the same way that it runs its own libraries. (Maybe they’ll be next?)

However, out-sourcing is the name of the game these days, and it’s not that that is causing me, and several of my colleagues, concerns.

Exchanging open for closed

No, it’s the fact that that the University decided to opt for Microsoft Exchange Online. A couple of days ago, most staff who had not yet transitioned were moved from our own servers to Microsoft’s, and the forced migration will be complete by the end of next week, and the old servers switched off at the end of the year. For most people, in the short term, this will just be a minor inconvenience. So why does this worry me? Because I take a longer view.

Since email was invented, all of the email of many tens of thousands of University staff and students has been stored in formats defined by open standards, on machines that we control, generally by open email software running on open operating systems which were storing it on open filesystems… and so on. We had full control, and we always knew we could manipulate, improve, archive, extract and back up any part of this system which stores such a valuable archive of data for the entire community.

This week, however, saw the transition of that entire archive to a system running proprietary software, stored in proprietary formats on proprietary operating systems and filing systems, on servers that we no longer control. And the most important question, of course, when putting any important data into any new system is “How easily can I get it out again, in a usable format for the future, if I change my mind?”

Now, normally, one of the many wonderful things about an IMAP-based email archive is that this is trivial: you can decide to move it from one hosting service to another, or just shift it to your own machine, simply by dragging and dropping it using the email program of your choice. I have done this many times over the decades, as I’ve moved between jobs, email providers, academic institutions, and also as my email-reading devices have switched between different operating systems and different email apps.

Exchange, however, has always had problems supporting IMAP access to email reliably. Experts disagree on how serious those problems currently are, but the fact that the debate continues is worrying. It’s a lower priority for Microsoft, because they’d rather you used their own protocols and their own software.

The slippery slope

The UIS’s own pages telling Mac users how to connect to the new email service, for example, start with this dire warning:

Warnings about why Outlook is the only safe desktop client to use with Exchange

Note that this is referring to Apple Mail, one of the most-used email clients in the world, and there’s a similar warning for those accessing their email and calendars from iOS devices.

What hope is there for those of us who prefer less-common email clients, such as my long-term favourite, Mailmate? Or who use less-mainstream operating systems? Or who have older hardware that won’t run the latest software?

This rings alarm bells for those of us who remember Microsoft’s (thankfully failed) attempts in the past to control another open system — the Web — by getting people to run Microsoft software both on the desktop and the server. When you control both ends of a system, you can freely modify the protocols used to communicate between them until it becomes very hard for users to adopt any other system. Microsoft used predatory and sometimes illegal business practices in the past to try and kill off Netscape and other desktop competition in pursuit of this goal, but the overall strategy failed, partly because their own server-side software was so inferior to the Open Source offerings that the techies responsible for most web servers refused to depend upon it.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat here — and to be frank, I doubt it — but I do wonder whether this shift to Exchange will prove to be a one-way-only transition. Suppose Microsoft were to say, in a few years’ time, that only a very small proportion of Exchange users now depended on IMAP, and they would be switching it off shortly. What options would the University have?

And what choice would users then have about the software they ran on their desktop to access this valuable archive?

Could we rely on getting thousands of email archives out and into a usable form elsewhere? What about any enhanced metadata? Attachments? Calendars? Contacts? There are open standards for all these things, but what incentives would Microsoft have to ease that transition, if it were even viable?

No, I fear that this contract, once made, has been made for ever.

And some of the implications are starting to be felt elsewhere. It recently came to light, for example, that the contract with Microsoft covered the staff and students of the University, but we have traditionally continued to provide email cam.ac.uk addresses to retired academics, emeritus professors, others helping with the activities of the University. “Ah”, said Microsoft — after the deal was signed, as I understand it, but perhaps before our chaps had cottoned on to all the implications — “You do realise that they’re not included in this deal?”.

This has made a lot of people very upset, because they had been given to understand that the email address that they’d always had, often the only one they’d ever had, that had been published at the top of their academic papers for decades, and had been used, for example, to set up all of their other online accounts, would remain a valid way of contacting them indefinitely. Not any more. This, of course, is standard practice in the business world: you leave a company and your email address is gone. The company closes, or is bought, and your email address is gone. But ancient universities haven’t always been run on those purely corporate lines or with those same expectations of transience.

Where does this leave us?

Essentially, therefore, there has been only one choice for those of us who wish to keep our email in standard formats that we know will be accessible in the long term. Reliable archiving is not a service we can now expect our eight-century-old University to provide, so we take all incoming email to our University addresses, and forward it to our own accounts held elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues in the Computer Science department are now doing this. We have to hope that this will continue to be allowed, both by the University and, of course, by Microsoft. We can’t ignore the Microsoft servers completely, because they will probably soon also be the only way to send email that will be recognised by the outside world as coming from a valid cam.ac.uk address. And being able to receive email under such an alias can be important for accessing academic journals, university service etc.

But some friends have decided that a better option is to start using their own personal email addresses on academic projects, papers, websites etc. to ensure that they have control in the future. (If you’re doing this, make sure you use your own DNS domain or a long-term reliable forwarding service, so you aren’t indefinitely tied to your current ISP or your ancient Hotmail account for your future professional communications!)

me.com

And perhaps some of this is inevitable. I used to rely on my employer to provide me with a telephone and a telephone number, for example, but the one sitting on my University desk for the last several years has almost never been used.

For many of us, it’s important that we control our own ‘brand’. Our own phone number, our own website, our own LinkedIn pages are more important to us than how we appear on any particular employer’s website, and as a result we need to pay for those out of our own pockets. Email should perhaps be the same, and wise academics should probably ensure that they control their own destiny and don’t use their current university email address on their publications.

But it all gradually erodes the sense of belonging to an ancient institution with which you might have a lifelong relationship. And that isn’t good for the institution either, especially when it comes to fund-raising. Ask any development office.

How to fix social media

Nicholas Carr, writing in The New Atlantis, has a splendid overview of how past regulation of technologies has distinguished between personal communications, which should be private, and broadcast communications, which should be regulated because, as Hoover put it, “The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for public benefit.”

He talks about how regulation of radio was accelerated because of the interference of amateur broadcasters in the rescue efforts when the Titanic went down, and follows the trajectory from there.

With the even more expansive Communications Act of 1934, Congress replaced the FRC with a more permanent body, the Federal Communications Commission, and widened its purview to include the personal communication systems of telephony and telegraphy, and eventually the new broadcast medium of television. By combining the mandate that telephone and telegraph providers operate as common carriers with the mandate that broadcasters act in the public interest, the legislation formalized the two-pronged philosophy that would govern electronic communications for the rest of the century.

The public interest, as we all know, is not easy to define. But that is part of its strength, Carr argues.

As the fraught history of the fairness doctrine makes clear, the public interest standard is not a magic bullet. Its amorphousness means that its interpretation will always be messy, combative, and provisional — as political processes tend to be in a democracy. Some legal scholars and pundits, particularly those with a libertarian tilt, have argued that the standard’s imprecision gives government regulators too much leeway. The standard, writes one typical critic, is “vague to the point of vacuousness, providing neither guidance nor constraint.” But that’s a misinterpretation. The public interest standard is more than just a legal principle. It is an ethical principle. It assures the people’s right to have a say in the workings of the institutions and systems that shape their lives — a right fundamental to a true democracy and a just society. The vagueness of the standard is necessary for a simple reason: public opinion changes as circumstances change.

Exactly how this distinction might be applied to social networks is not clear, he admits.

On a social network like Facebook, conversations feel like broadcasts, and broadcasts feel like conversations.

In addition, some posts which were intended for a small audience go viral and become a large-scale broadcast, whether or not that was the author’s intention. But he makes the point that the networks themselves are very aware of all the statistics about the reach of each individual post, and that this might form the basis of some form of regulatory distinctions.

And…

It’s worth remembering that Congress’s decision to license radio operators after the Titanic disaster was about more than just allocating scarce spectrum. It was about bringing those who speak to the masses out of the shadows and into the daylight of the public square. It was about making broadcasters, whether individuals, businesses, or other organizations, visible and accountable.

A very nice piece and worth reading in full. Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

Audio sometimes preferred!

I had an interesting start to the day. Regular readers of this blog will probably have heard quite enough about webcams and coffee pots, but that’s apparently not true for everybody in the world…

Thirty years ago today, Sir Tim turned on his first public webserver, which means that this is one of the days that people have chosen to label as the 30th anniversary of the Web. As it happens, we’re also not too far from the 30th anniversary of the day when we turned on the Trojan Room coffee pot camera, which would be connected to the web a couple of years later and so become the first webcam.

Anyway, I sometimes get wheeled out as a suitable relic to display from this era, and I had an email yesterday from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire asking if I was willing to be on the Louise Hulland show first thing this morning. I said yes, and they were going to contact me with further details… but I heard nothing more, so presumed it wasn’t going ahead. Until, that is, I emerged from my shower this morning, draped in my dressing gown but dripping slightly, to hear my phone ringing… and answered it only to be dropped into a live interview. However much I like networked video, there are times when audio really is the best medium! Anyway, it’s here, for the record.

Perhaps better is an interview that was actually recorded quite some time ago by Jim Boulton for the Centre for Computing History, but which they first published today as part of the local Web@30 event. In it, I am (a) slightly more compos mentis, since it was recorded later in the day and I had consumed more coffee, and (b) rather better attired.

MeetingBuster and the Christmas Call Diary

There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!

It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.

Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”

Phone Phun

And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.

With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!

Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.

But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.

Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.

The Christmas Call Diary

We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.

So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.

We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:

  • When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
  • If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
  • If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.

In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!

MeetingBuster

Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):

A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)

Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser