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Monday, February 25, 2002

Your children know the future
John Naughton

THERE are two ways of predicting the technological future. One is to buy a crystal ball. The other is to watch what kids do with technology. The second is by far the more productive approach. Consider mobile phones. When the technology first appeared, it was perceived as an expensive but sensible variation on ye olde bakelite telephone - liberating mankind from the quaint notion that phones should be tethered to the wall, like goats. Early on, we became dimly aware of a strange facility called SMS, which would enable one to send 160-character messages from phone to phone, but dismissed it as a stupid idea. Who in the world would want to use such a primitive technology when one could talk to people?


And thus matters stood for a decade, until the mobile networks introduced pay-as-you-go tariffs, making it possible for teenagers to have cell-phones. The kids immediately spotted the SMS facility and started using it, partly because it was cheaper than making voice calls. The result was explosive growth in text messaging which remained invisible to the adult world until the day the school exams results were released. At this point, the adult world woke up belatedly discovering that SMS technology is really very useful. It's less intrusive, for one thing which is why you now see men in suits punching tiny keyboards after boarding trains, rather than going through the unsophisticated ritual of phoning to say: "Hello darling, I'm on the 5.36." According to the GSM (mobile networks) Association, SMS messages are now running at the rate of 30 billion a month. And the only surprising thing about that statistic is that we are surprised by it. We ought to have seen this coming.

"But," you object, "this is the bogus wisdom of hindsight. It still doesn't help us predict the future." Which is no doubt true. But consider the strange case of the technology called Instant Messaging (IM). Here one notices another one of those sharp age boundaries and the salutary fact that it's as difficult to find an Internet user over 40 who uses IM as it is to find a teenager who doesn't.

IM is basically SMS for the Internet. You download a small (free) program called a 'client' and install it. Then, whenever you connect to the Net, the client contacts a central server, tells it you're online and gives it the current Internet address of your machine. The server registers this and then checks whether any internet users you have designated as 'buddies' are also online. If they are, it informs your client and then, by double-clicking on their names (or aliases), you can open a private chat-line directly with them and exchange messages in 'real time'.

You're operating in what kids call 'buddy space'. IM technology has been around since 1996. It spread like wildfire among youthful Net users, but was viewed with disdain by their elders, who saw it as a tool for those with nothing better to do except exchange inane comments and salacious messages. Spool forward a few years and what do we find?

In most organisations these days everyone is online and IM offers a way of bypassing the delays of e-mail and the impertinences of answering machines. The result: explosive growth in adult use of IM which has suddenly become the hottest thing around. The moral? If you want to know the future, ask your kids. ONS