Mouthing the Words of a Forgotten Tune

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Two milestone events transpired last month, undermining the belief that we understand technology and its future in the 21st century.

On January 27, Western Union sent its last telegram, laid off its remaining 30 telegraph employees, and formally ended an era of business technology—and a business model that had stretched back more than 150 years to the days of stovepipe hats and steam locomotives. In this day of near-ubiquitous business data communications, it gives one pause: Have we lost anything with the passing of the telegram?

(Note: Western Union still exists, but long ago changed its major business model to financial services.)

Carter Phone and AT&T

A few of us old-timers have careers that stretch back to the 1960s and the Carter Phone decision of the FCC. But not as far back as the heyday of the telegraph. The Carter Phone was a device built by the Carter Electronics Company to send analog information—essentially encoded telegrams composed on punch tapes—across the telephone lines owned by AT&T. Many programmers punched their first programs on paper tape for Carter Phones and then fed those punch tapes over the phone lines to timesharing mainframes in distant cities. This made the Carter Phone invaluable to businesses that needed computing power: It was a kind of telex machine that could be used to send something other than a telegram.

Unfortunately, AT&T sued Carter Electronics for using its network with unauthorized equipment. The matter ended up with the FCC, and its decision enabled the subsequent bloom of the commercial interconnect industry. No longer could a technology company prevent users from accessing their services with third-party equipment.

Revolution and Evolution in Communications

Of course, looking around the office today at the array of communications gear—or even peering at the local coffee shop at your neighbor decked out in cell phone, PDA, and laptop—it's easy to see that technology has moved on. Most of us now have more communications devices hooked to more technologies than we could possibly handle if all began to beep at once. How many? Let's take inventory!

Landline PBXs, cell phones, PDAs, fax machines, and GPSs are but a few of the devices in use. Radios and televisions are in every home and many offices. Then there's infrastructural equipment that supports these data communications mediums: Fiber-optic cables, satellites, transmitters, receivers, routers, and WiFi all pulsing with the digital heartbeat, feeding our servers, our personal terminals, our PCs, and our Notebooks.

That's just the beginning. Even inside this digital realm, there are the ubiquitous applications themselves: email, instant messaging, SMS, RSS, Web, FTP, and VOIP, just to name a few. And each of these is fueled by a nest of communications protocols, roadmaps describing how the technological pieces fit together.

A Singing Telegram

However, despite all this technology, what we're still clearly missing is the singing telegram, that wonderful marketing product that Western Union devised in the 1933. It was the iPod of its day and was invented by public relations executive George P. Oslin, who sent Hollywood heartthrob Rudy Vallee a birthday greeting. And who sang that first singing telegram? Her name was Lucille Lipps, a talented Western Union operator, called upon at the last minute to make her debut.

Now, to place this event's importance in perspective, even former President George H. W. Bush's famous 1988 campaign pledge "Read my lips! No new taxes!" was talking about Lucille's talents! This was according to an anonymous George W.H. Bush administration historian who claims that "Read my lips!" was supposed to mean "Read my Lipps!", referring to the subsequent singing telegrams sent to each member of congress restating the actual need for increased taxes. Of course, Washington is never more poetic than when it comes twisting the use of communications technology!

What's Missing Today?

So what's the big deal about telegrams? Who mourns the demise of eight-track? When last counted, fewer than 20,000 telegrams were actually sent in 2005 anyway.

The answer is that telegraphy started the revolution in communications that still goes on today. And we need to ask where it is leading, too. For instance, if the documentation for all the modern devices, technologies, and protocols were printed out and laid end to end, how far would the trail of paper stretch? Certainly, it would be longer than that first transcontinental telegraph line that spanned the mountains, the prairies, and the deserts across the wilderness of America in 1861. Certainly, it would reach the 238,856 miles between the Earth and the moon (and remember President George W. Bush's pledge that we would return there again someday, too!). Indeed, is it possible that this printed knowledge map might even reach the nearest star, 4.3 light-years away? And finally, is there another election year promise hidden somewhere in this technological rhetoric?

All silly questions, no doubt, considering that the elections are still months and months away. And yet, that same trail of electrons, composing the documentation of all these protocols, feeds the most pervasive computing platform on the face of this planet today: the Windows operating system. And so it seemed quite apropos that, two days before Western Union formally ended its telegraph operations, Microsoft announced that it would, finally, release the source documentation to its Windows Server operating system.

What?!? Microsoft Releasing Source Code?!?

Brad Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel, said on January 25 that Microsoft would begin licensing all of its Windows Server source code as a way of coming into compliance with the European Commission's ruling of March 2004. The company said it made the decision voluntarily as a way of dealing with the issues raised by the commission's Statement of Objections made in December 2005.

"Today we are putting our most valuable intellectual property on the table so we can put technical compliance issues to rest and move forward with a serious discussion about the substance of this case," Smith said in a prepared statement. "The Windows source code is the ultimate documentation of Windows Server technologies. With this step, our goal is to resolve all questions about the sufficiency of our technical documentation."

What Microsoft is providing from the Windows Server source code is a "reference license" that will give developers a precise description of all Windows communication protocol technologies. In Microsoft's mind, this will make it easier for developers to interface with the Windows de facto communications standard.

Read My Lipps!

And what could be better than access to Windows Server code? Well, nothing, really! This is great news! Congratulations, Microsoft! Great decision!

But we were still sort of rooting for the singing telegram. Read my Lipps! (Open source!)

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.