Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The More Things Change...

It's Thursday Morning in Rosenheim and it looks like it's going to be another very productive day. We've made excellent progress on rolling out the latest version of software here and the final Release, with a few kinks smoothed out, will be distributed around starting tomorrow.

My big realization for the day is that the more technology can do, the more we expect! This is not the first time I've realized or pondered this fact, but I was reminded of it this morning as I struggled to make a reliable call home. Unfortunately the phone system at the hotel is not accepting the toll free number that allows me to use my company calling card. The only explanation from the front desk staff is "I'm sorry, you'll have to use a direct connection and pay the hotel rate".

I've been avoiding this all week by using an amazing program that's gotten a lot of press in the last year called Skype. This program allows you to connect 2 computers in a voice chat that is just like a phone call, just using the computer. Skype isn't the first company to offer a service like this, although I will say that they have been more successful than their predecessors at making the system work well. The biggest factor seems to be the quality of your internet connection. There is a time delay factor when we call the ECT facility in Hudson, NH, but when I connect to Multitest's wireless network and "call" my boss in Pomona, it sounds clear as a local telephone call. The best part... it's absolutely free. Or rather, there is no additional charge. You have to pay for a high quality internet connection like they have at Multitest or ECT Pomona, but no charge for using that internet connection to create a voice chat. As I said before the New Hampshire facility always has a slight delay when we call from Pomona. It's not bad every time, but there have been occasions when we've disconnected the Skype session and switched to a telephone, never a good sign for this type of technology, but so far it has not been bad enough on a consistent basis for us to turn away from it completely.

However, the advance that Skype has either made or made popular (I don't know if anyone could do this feature before, and that's my point), is called SkypeOut. It allows you to make a connection between 1 computer and 1 telephone. This means I can substitute the computer on my end, but call our house phone. There is a fee for this service because Skype is obviously paying the telephone company to connect from a computer near home to our home telephone. However, the rates are incredibly good. The cost for a call between Germany and the United States (either direction) is .017 Euro per minute. That's two Euro CENTS for a minute. Considering our corporate calling card rate is somewhere near a DOLLAR per minute, this is a huge savings.

Now if any of you are asking either a) why do I care about all this? or b) didn't he start off saying that he'd had a frustrating time, why is he rambling about software? then the answer is either a) maybe you don't, you don't have to read this or b) I'm telling you how far we've come, now I'll tell you about my disappointed higher expectations...

Tangent completed I'll jump back to the idea that I've been using Skype to sidestep the hotel telephone. The hotel offers a T-Mobile service that is wirelessly available in the hotel room for 2 Euros per 15 minutes. Even a 2 Euro overhead combined with paying cents per minute makes a 3 minute Skype call less expensive than a 3 minute telephone call and the savings gets better by the minute after that. However, the internet connection at the hotel is not what I was calling a "high quality internet connection". When I first got in to Rosenheim on Monday, the hotel telphone and internet system was down for an hour (just long enough to miss my chance to call Andrea before she went to work), then it took half an hour to configure, but then it worked and I left Andrea a message on our answering machine. Tuesday it worked OK for a SkypeOut call, although 3 or 4 times the sound would drop out for about 2 seconds and then come back. Wednesday I again spent about 30 minutes getting the wirless connection to work, but I was rewarded with another 15 minute "call" with only a few 2 second blanks. However, I must have run out of luck, because this morning it was horrible. I could hear Andrea just fine, but she could only hear every other word from my end. We fought with this for 15 minutes, closing and restarting the session every few minutes to try to get a better connection over the internet (unfortunately that wasn't the problem, the problem was the connection on my end). After hanging up the last time, I promptly switched to the telephone in the room and tried the calling card number one more time. With no luck, I broke down and dialed the international number directly and profusely apologized to Andrea for the frustrating time of trying to talk for 15 minutes when she could never hear a full sentence.

We kept the call short, having no idea what rate the hotel would charge, but fearing the worst. On my way to breakfast I asked the front desk to tell me the charge for our call. I didn't time the call, but it was probably between 2 and 3 minutes, and the cost was 3,30 Euro (the comma is a nod to the German convention, mentally substitute a decimal point). Basically one Euro per minute, which at the current exchange rate is only marginally worse than the calling card that I was insistent on using.

So what's the point! Now that I've experienced a crystal clear Skype call for no cost to me (our company is paying the internet line, but my usage isn't directly increasing the bill), I expect this. I want to talk without interruption without paying anything extra for it. I am willing to pay a few cents per minute for SkypeOut because of the convenience for Andrea to use the house phone rather than sit at our computer and it's so much less than before that my mind can justify it. But I will not accept a bad quality connection. I expect my bits and bytes to travel from Germany to California and back fast enough that I cannot tell it wasn't instant. And the funny thing is that in many cases, they do. But when they don't... well, let's just say that I'm going to stick to calling from the office at the end of the day and not deal with the hotel lines for anything but email for the rest of the trip.

I'm sure in 25 years, a sound exchange between any 2 points in the world will have become a trivial thing and my child will not understand how I could ever have struggled to make a call overseas. But my guess is, he or she will be frustrated because a videochat between 5 college friends in different states and countries dropped some frames. The more things change... you know the rest.

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