Monday, February 12, 2007

Leftover Technical Details: Part I

In much of our lives, engineers hide the technical details from us. We drive our cars through a simple interface, we flip a light switch and don't have to worry about circuits, volts, or amps, but in a few strange places, users are forced to learn the underlying details of technology.

Radio station frequencies, AM and FM

If we weren't so used to it, the idea of AM, FM, frequencies, and 4 letters representing stations with the first letter representing which side of the Mississippi the station is on would all seem crazy. How many people know what AM and FM stand for? How many people know what they mean from a technical standpoint? How many people actually understand what the frequencies mean, what frequency division multiplexing is, and the original meaning of bandwidth?

These are all technical details we must have a cursory knowledge of to operate a radio. They're mainly left over for historical reasons--a lack of technology to abstract frequencies into a list of stations--but now we have such technology. There's no need for us to know frequencies or even of AM and FM.


Fortunately, these are going to be phased out soon in favor of broadcast digital HD TV, and the technical details are mostly a thing of the past.

Some of use remember that not long ago, the coax cable that came in from the antenna attached to a splitter. Then, we had to hook up the VHF coax cable to the TV, and the weird cable with the screws up to carry the UHF signal. Some TVs came with two antennas on top, one for each band, and each screwed into the TV in a different place.

Before there was UHF, there was only VHF. To save money, when the first TVs supporting UHF were made, they used two internal tuners.

Old TVs featured the two dials above. The first selected either a VHF channel or switches the TV to the UHF tuner in the second picture.

The channel numbers don't overlap, and the frequencies don't overlap. The only reason this was done was to save money, and it lasted a while. This is similar to AM and FM, but luckily, these technical details from the past are almost gone. New TVs integrate both tuners together and hide the notion of different frequencies altogether from the user.


After reading an article about how Google is the new http://, I quickly realized URLs are yet another unneeded technical detail. When my mom wants to look up a website, e.g. eBay, she searches for it instead of going to; she avoids URLs altogether. Average users don't care what the address is. That's just an abstraction above IP addresses--closer to what users are looking for, but not quite.

That said, should Google and Yahoo be the definitive source for where eBay is? The strange thing is that this has been solved, albeit in a proprietary way: AOL keywords. Ironically, AOL has even abandoned them in favor of Google.

My solution is a non-proprietary top level keyword listing that ISPs mirror on keyword lookup servers. Registration priority goes to the owner of the trademark, generic search terms, e.g. cell phone, prescriptions, paint, are not permitted, scopes exist (global, national, regional, provincial, etc.), providing a means for returning the most relevant "Stan's Doughnuts."

The URL bar on browsers would be replaced with a keyword bar, and the search bar would be widened. Advanced users could still add a URL bar, but this serves no purpose for average users.

Area Codes and Long Distance

Between cell phones, VoIP, and instant messaging, I'm surprised long distance still exists on landlines. It seems like a dated construct leftover from the days of Ma Bell.

In a time where phones were switched by hand, the cost of long distance calls made sense (and cents for the phone company); it took a lot of effort to do the switching. When phone companies migrated away from that and to electronic switching, the overhead of a circuit still provided some justification for higher prices. Now, however, when even phone companies run calls over the internet, and two average users can use VoIP to talk to each other for free, the idea of long distance just seems dated. Maybe AT&T should have spent more time delivering my long distanceless world and less making a shiney new logo.

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