An Open Letter to 2600 Magazine

By Benjamin Reeve

Dear 2600:

A quick review of some of the relevant facts notes:

- That you are litigating in at least two major federal cases regarding "expressive" rights in digital technology. That litigation is expensive. That you may or may not be as rich as your corporate opposition -- but it does not appear that you are as well funded.

- That you have a kind of "bad boys" image as "hackers" and that hackers are these days considered miscreants.

- That the name "2600" comes from the frequency which, when appearing on the line cleared it for trunk signalling back in the days of blue boxes, the Cap'n Crunch whistle, and other various and sundry forms of phreaking.

- That you no doubt have amongst you still clever technical people who have a profound understanding of the telephone system. That you have paid some attention to the social circumstances surrounding technological things, including the telephone system, and have some expertise and practice in the area.

- That, the availability of T1 and T2 lines (or E1/E2 lines in Europe), or the availability of ISDN notwithstanding, the common and usual means by which the telephone system is multiplexed ("slick-96s" out on poles throughout the countryside) means that the 3Kc POTS line is still the lingua franca and vernacular of wire communication. And will be in this and other parts of the world for a while.

- That, even if some people who are nice people once made some money at building and selling the currently used generation of automated telephone answering and call handling equipment (press 3 to talk to a salesperson, press 4 to talk to a nasty aggressive salesperson, press 6 to stay on hold forever...If you know the extension of the party you are trying to reach you may press it at any time to be re-routed to someone else's voice mail...) and some of them are spending their money on good causes, those systems, to use a 2600 word, suck. They are inefficient, in the sense that each menu can take a long time and getting through a stack of menus can take a long time. They are of limited flexibility, in that it is usually difficult to get back up the tree when one needs to and one often has a request that does not match the categories offered. They consume (not that it seems like a lot in absolute terms) a bit of bandwidth to create few bits of information. Etc.

- That several firms are "working" on this matter, and endeavoring to make it "easier" to get through the automated answering equipment, mostly by employing voice recognition technologies (so that the caller is expected to say "salesperson" to be connected to one).

- That voice recognition may be part of the solution, but is only a part. Problems, too, with everything from foreign accents, to many synonyms, to further conventionalizing language in a socially demeaning and limiting way, to ambiguities (even names that are common nouns, Mr. Light, Ms. Bell), to false responses to word sounds not intended to operate the system, etc. One wants: 1) to be able to transmit data (bits) much faster than voice mechanically interpreted (in fact at the limit of POTS bandwidth) 2) to be able to put up a concise visual display (inter alia, that is what a "tree" looks like), 3) to be able to integrate with other telephone directory database information (the phone book as a digital encoding that is basically a part of the phone that uses it -- local directory assistance as a mere "update" if and when necessary), AND 4) to give the caller an "equal partnership" ability to do his/her own call management, AND 5) to construct this facility as an "open" system or "open source" structure, something that everyone knows how works and is usable and accessible to everyone. These last points are more than a little important -- and typically given small consideration by the firms who usual business it would be to make such systems.

- That, done right, it is quite possible that such a system could be instituted and take hold just by means of the widespread publication of its details. Details, of course, have to do with how the line is switched from audio to digital-data-as-audio and back again, how the digital data format is turned (html-like) into a visual image either on an lcd screen added to an existing phone, or an a screen built into a phone, or on a computer screen that is part of a computer used for personal call management.

- That such a system would be of a nature that it could be used anywhere in the world that a modem quality connection can be made on voice grade phone lines. Again, the object is to give to the caller directory and call management capabilities in a digitally provided format on any voice phone line, to have these capabilities constructively interact with similar capabilities on the part of the call recipient.

But what does this have to do with the cost of litigation? I believe that 2600 could set forth such a system in a very "open" / disclosed way -- and still make enough money to litigate happily for a long time to come. A small percentage of the consulting fees alone for converting current "Press 9 to listen to the next message..." systems would keep anyone in food and shoes and lawyers for quite a while. Further, the "hacker-badboy" image would have to be modified at least in substantial part to hacker-as-useful-simple-common-open-system-architect. That might not hurt one's presentations in court either.

My suggestion to you is to design the particulars of the system, document it in detail and send the documentation to everyone, absolutely everyone, around the world. Make it entirely available, in detail, in scope, to everybody. Designing it will require the time of smart people, but otherwise should be a not-too-expensive entertainment. The Internet is cheap distribution. Make patent applications for parts of it if you want to, but it wouldn't surprise me if you don't have enough to go with just by being the people who came up with and described and promulgated the system.

Very truly yours,

Benjamin Reeve