Technical Blog

IM vs Telephone

Posted on

Why is it that while we all love IM systems (geeks especially loving our fair Jabber) we still use telephones? Is it that we like the voice aspect? Well, most IMs have that option. I don’t even like that option. So what is it then?

You don’t ‘turn on’ a telephone.

It’s just on. So if someone is home and you call them, you will reach them. No problem. With IM you have to wait for them to be online… what a pain.

Some systems have tried to overcome this with hardware, the Skype phone being a prime example. This works well as long as people can be made to understand that they must leave their computers on ALL the time for it to work. I can’t help wondering though, could this be similarly overcome directly from text-only IM software?

I think it can, but we will have to change the way many people think about IM. It seems that to many people, IM only works when a person is actively at their computer (which is mostly true at this point), so when someone is set to Away, etc, they do not initiate conversation, or even send a message. But what if the programs tried to ‘call’ a person the way a phone does when it rings? What if Jabber clients (or other IM programs) turned the volume up on your machine and played a really loud sound when someone initiated a chat while you were set to Away? They could then send an auto-message to the person telling them that the person they have started chatting with is away and it is trying to call them 1…2…3…4…up to a configurable number, then, please leave a message (easy to do in Jabber).

We would have to retrain ourselves to leave the computer on and signed in during all waking hours (or all hours period for Google Talk where offline messaging still doesn’t work). We would have to retrain ourselves to try talking to people set to away, we would have to be willing to ‘run to the computer’ when it ‘rang’ just as we do with our phone. We wouldn’t have the conveniance of cordless like we do for phones (not at first anyway), but we would save ourselves so much time and effort… and maybe finally kill ‘real’ telephony.

3 Responses


There are several IM systems which will let you send a message to a contact even when they’re offline – they’ll then display the message as soon as the user logs on. But I think you’re talking more about various ways of getting the recipient’s immediate attention.

Thing is, I find that all the people who I want to be able to contact me immediately already have my phone number. I’m available in a ton of different ways. The hardest thing is to get people to STOP contacting me so I can get on with some work!

Linda Stone coined a great term: “Continuous partial attention”. It describes the state of having loads of potential incoming alerts and having to be responsive to them the whole time. You find that it’s actually more of a problem than a solution. More info:


That’s all very true, however, people are going to contact you anyway. My point was more on switching from telephony contact to IM contact and ways that could happen… not increasing your availability! Why should I talk on the telephone with my geek friends if we’re all on the Jabber network? It makes precious little sense.


I think IM is fine the way it is. Its a non intrusive method of non verbal communication.
One can respond to a IM msg at will, one is not forced to answer till an appropriate time.

Leave a Response