REDMOND, Wash., June 4, 2001 — In many ways, the history of humankind is the story of how we communicate. One way to mark the important epochs of our past is to note the appearance of new technologies that have transformed the way we share news and information with each other. According to this view of history, the heroes of human progress must include the scientists and engineers who fundamentally transformed society with inventions that changed the way people keep in touch with one another.
There was Samuel B. Morse, for example, inventor of the telegraph. And telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Next came Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first wireless communication. After Marconi, came Ray Tomlinson. Although he doesnt get much publicity, Tomlinson in 1971 wrote the first e-mail program and sent the first e-mail message.
Windows Messenger – Real Time CommunicationClick on the image for high resolution photo
And after Tomlinson? How about the team responsible for the development of Windows Messenger, the real-time communication feature in the upcoming Microsoft Windows XP operating system for home and business?
While it might at first seem presumptuous to carve the names of an entire team of software developers onto history’s list of communications-technology giants, the newest version of the Windows operating system seems indeed poised to ignite the next revolution in human communication when it launches Oct. 25.
Welcome to the age of
in which the PC becomes a central hub for sharing high-quality video, audio, text, and documents with friends, family members, and work colleagues instantly, no matter where they are in the world.
“Windows XP opens the door to amazing new kinds of person-to-person communication,”
said Microsoft Product Unit Manager David Gurle, who heads the Windows Messenger development team.
“Today, communication is highly asynchronous. You send e-mail and wait for a response. You call someone and leave voice mail. You send a document to coworkers and wait for them to make changes and send it back. With Windows Messenger, you know right away if someone is available and then you can see them, talk with them, and work on documents together, all in real time and at levels of quality that have been unimaginable until now.”
According to Gurle, Windows Messenger will make it possible for people to come together in ways that may seem fantastic today. One example: students and researchers in different locations — even in different countries — will be able to work together on projects, sharing source material and co-editing papers, all online, in real time. Families will find it easy to hold spur-of-the-moment online reunions. Companies will find it easier and more cost effective to bring colleagues located in different offices together to exchange ideas, work on presentations and discuss strategies. Features such as white-boarding, shared document editing, as well as video- and audio-conferencing, will make a meeting of colleagues located in different countries just as productive as a face-to-face meeting.
In addition, Windows XP, which has just been released to beta testers, will extend digital communication beyond desktop computing to a host of existing and new devices that will make real time communication a reality even for users who arent sitting in front of their home or office PC.
Integrating Communication into a Seamless Whole
While the effects may be revolutionary, the real-time technology advancements in Windows XP are more evolutionary in nature than the kind of great scientific leaps that characterized the dawn of the telephone era, for example. A core component of Windows XP, Windows Messenger derives its power from the way it brings together existing technologies that work together as a seamless whole.
“While some forms of real-time communication — including online voice and video conferencing — have been available for a while”
, said Tom Laemmel, product manager for Windows XP at Microsoft,
Windows Messenger is the first communication tool that delivers an easy to use, unified experience. Now it is not only possible, but easy for everyone to get online in real time.”
Even without the ease of use offered by Windows XP, the promise of person-to-person communication using the PC and the Internet has generated a great deal of excitement and press. To date, some of that promise has been realized. Text-based real-time communication tools like online chat and instant messaging have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. But other features havent lived up to the hype. Voice and video calling using the PC, for example, remain a novelty for most people.
At Microsoft, efforts to make the PC a great communications device have been a major focus for more than a decade. The result: a steady stream of new and improved technologies that have made the PC increasingly central to the way we share data and information.
For PC users, evidence of that communications focus includes the basic Phone Dialer, an integral feature of the Windows operating system beginning with the release of Windows 3.1. In 1996, Microsoft introduced Windows NetMeeting, which is now the most widely used application for PC-based voice, video and data collaboration. Microsoft has long played an important role in the development of text-based online communications, with the addition of fax and e-mail support to Windows in the early 1990s, and the introduction of Microsoft Chat and then Comic Chat in Windows 95. MSN Messenger, first included in Windows Me, helped make instant messaging one of the most important new communication technologies of the late 1990s, both for home and enterprise users.
Less obvious to the average computer user are basic technologies like the Windows Telephony Application Programming Interface (TAPI), first included in Windows 3.1, which made it possible for the telephone and PC to share data. Recent enhancements have opened the door to telephone service directly over the Internet, and TAPI is used in a wide range of consumer and business applications and products. Other platform technologies, including the Speech API and the Windows NetMeeting APIs, have made it possible for developers around the world to create new hardware devices, new applications, and new services that are making PC-based communication easier .
Ironically, according to Laemmel, the real-time communication revolution is really just a return to an earlier era of interaction at work and play.
“In the past,”
“we got work done by sitting down together and hashing things out in the moment, face-to-face. With Windows XP, well eliminate a lot of the discontinuity that is inherent in sending e-mail back and forth, or leaving a message on somebodys answering machine, or even sending a fax or transmitting a document and waiting for a reply of some sort. As the real-time communication that Windows Messenger makes possible becomes commonplace, youre going to see more and more of the person-to-person interaction that was the norm before the rise of computer networks, e-mail, the Internet, and other new communication technologies.”
A Communications Revolution
While the real-time communication platform brings together a variety of previously existing technologies, significant improvements were made to Windows XP, as well. These include
technology that reduces audio- and video-stream delays when there is more Internet traffic than the system can handle. Windows Messenger can also select the voice coder and decoder — or codecs — that match network conditions in the moment. When there is plenty of bandwidth available, Windows Messenger will load a codec that can provide sound quality that exceeds what were accustomed to on the telephone. As network delays increase, it automatically and seamlessly switches to slower-speed codecs, providing the best possible level of quality at all times.
Another new technology in Windows XP,
“acoustic echo cancellation,”
reduces the feedback echo that frequently plagues users who place PC-to-PC audio calls over the Internet. Planned additions to future releases of Windows Messenger include the ability to place PC-to-phone calls, and the option to select which service provider will carry the call, from anywhere in the world.
An important enabling technology central to Windows Messenger is a new standard called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). Developed three years ago through work done at Columbia University and Bell Labs, and adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force, SIP is an overarching standard that makes it possible for many different kinds of devices to connect to the Internet and take advantage of real-time communication. SIP lets users determine whether the people they want to communicate with are online and then invite them to join in an online conference. From there, SIP allows users to initiate video streams, open voice channels, and share documents.
SIP also opens the door to the creation of an entirely new generation of communications products. Like the Internet standard HTTP, SIP gives software developers a common starting point for building applications that interoperate easily. What that will mean for the way people share news and information is hard to predict. But just as the widespread adoption of HTTP made the Web a reality and altered the way we work and play, SIP — and Windows Messenger — will transform the way we communicate with one another.
Changing the Face of Human Communications
Which brings back the question of adding names to the list of communications innovators. A requirement for a place on it seems to be a historical moment that clearly marks the dawn of a new era. For Morse, there was that first telegram, which read,
“What hath god wrought.”
Alexander Graham Bell famously used his new telephone to summon his assistant:
“Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.”
Perhaps e-mail inventor Ray Tomlinson has largely been forgotten by history because his first e-mail consisted of the distinctly uninspiring message,
He simply typed in the top row of letters on his keyboard.
And what about the Windows Messenger team at Microsoft? For David Gurle, the crystal moment when he knew that Windows Messenger had a chance to be the next important step in communication technology occurred in November 2000, in a meeting with Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates. For a meeting to decide whether to continue with the development of Window Messenger, Gurle prepared a demonstration for Gates, with one PC set up in Gates conference room and a second set up in another conference room.
After watching the beginning of the demonstration, a slightly impatient Gates asked when he was going to see the live version of Windows Messenger.
“The quality of the video and audio and the immediacy of the response were so good that he asked if he was looking at a recorded presentation,”
“For me that was really the defining moment. That was when we knew for sure that we had a product that was going to change the way the world communicates.”
Its a good story, of course, but as a defining moment in history, it lacks the weight of
“What hath god wrought.”
It seems a safe bet that while Windows Messenger will give rise to entirely new ways of communicating, the Windows Messenger team is much more likely to join Tomlinson on the list of those that history overlooked.