Dont Typecast Talk Tools

Opinion: Despite our fondness for communication via e-mail and text messaging, smart-phone data has something to say.

In the last week or so, Ive seen as much wireless handheld Web surfing by parents at Boy Scout meetings and by family members in hospital lobbies as I have by road warriors in airport lounges.

Its one thing to see the statistics of proliferating smart phones, especially those from overseas markets (where they havent Balkanized their wireless environments as badly as we have here). Its another to have the phenomenon literally in your face, as people increasingly seem more likely to check a datum from a smart phone than to fire up a Wi-Fi notebook.

I was thinking about the implications of this trend even before I got word of a study by Anderson Analytics, scheduled for broad release this week, surveying college students about the role of the cell phone in their lives.

My top-line take on the results is that theres hope for the next generation after all, with almost none of the respondents mentioning electronic games as a factor in their device choice.

Interestingly, even such popular features as cameras and texting tools appeared to be second-tier issues compared with price, size, price, style and price. Did I mention that they were influenced by price?

Also of note is the "survey within a survey" that the Anderson study represents. Not only did it examine students attitudes toward cell phones, but it also tested the audio-based survey technology of Big Ears.

The latter companys hosted service captures spoken responses, rather than mere checkbox input, enabling additional subjective analysis of any subset of the respondents reactions.

Moreover, according to data from Big Ears, of Wellington, New Zealand, free-response questions on average get a 15 percent longer reply from people who get to talk rather than type.

"Talking isnt work," said Big Ears Managing Director Mark Forsyth, observing that some respondents used the Big Ears technology to give their phoned-in survey responses even as they were also performing some keyboard-based task.

I wondered why I was having a sense of déjà vu when I mentally summarized this finding as "people would rather talk than type." I then realized that I had made that very statement in a column this spring. "Could it be," I asked in the March 7 issue of eWEEK, "that despite our (pretended?) interest in e-mail and text-messaging technologies, wed really rather talk? Is voice, in fact, the real killer app?"

Some of Big Ears admittedly self-interested data collection does suggest as much.

Personally, Ive built up a set of practices and preferences during 18 years of telecommuting that make me value the precision and the durability of e-mail. I can take a message and reply, point by point, to its assertions or its requests. I can document exactly what I said or provided, to exactly whom, exactly when.

/zimages/4/28571.gifInstant messaging isnt an instant platform. Click here to read more.

That doesnt necessarily make me a better co-worker—and the fact that Ive gotten comfortable with this mode of communication doesnt mean that its generally better than talking with people as a means of getting things done.

If anything, our genes incorporate several millennia of optimization for giving and taking information based on tone of voice, for incorporating humor and especially irony (notoriously dangerous in e-mail) as communication tools, and for tailoring the message to the recipients situation and mood.

Andersons study finds the next generation of workplace communicators predisposed to talk from anywhere at any time: Only two of the sample of 187 surveyed students did not have a cell phone.

A third of the respondents consider their cell phone to be a reflection of their personality, making a statement about their technical savvy, their sense of style and their practicality.

When apparent preference for voice is combined with the rapidly falling cost and improving quality of wireless access to Web resources, were looking at a rich and (we may hope) effective environment for sharing facts, assigning responsibilities, and building both professional and social relationships.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

WWWeb Resources

Surveying the Data

Find out more about the Anderson Analytics study

Ears That You May Hear

Big Ears offers a channel for listening to the customer

Speaking of Work

Read a Cisco-sponsored study by The Economist

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