I apologize in advance if this sounds like a long rant…
My Cisco IP Phone
In my office I am the proud “owner” of a Cisco IP Phone. A piece of robust technology, that has been assisting me in my daily work for years now. It has a decent speaker phone capability, which allows me to talk without raising the handset itself – a simple, yet mandatory, feature for long phone calls.
That oh-so-useful “speaker” button
The way it works is that by pressing the “speaker” button on the phone, I can answer the call. In that case, the only way to disconnect the call (besides the known “hack” of physically raising the handset and then hanging it back down) is by pressing the “speaker” button again.
This wouldn’t be an issue except that it is accompanied by another great feature: in order to dial out I can again use the “speaker” button to get a dial tone and initiate the call.
The Mobile Phone Hang-up Paradigm
As a kid I grew up with those old fashioned pulse phones.
Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be
Back in those days, the caller was the only one that was allowed to disconnect a call. If someone called you, there was no way you could disconnect the call and dial someone else. If the caller did not hang up, the call just continued; If you tried to dial again, you got the same connection you had before.
While this used to be a great feature for service providers who made money out of people not placing their handset back in place, it annoyed the hell out of those left connected when they had to call someone else.
Enter the mobile phone, where connections are “expensive”. A decision was made that, when either one of the sides gets disconnected, the connection itself is severed and dropped.
This feature comes in handy in various use-cases, not just when I’m talking to people on my mobile phone while cooking, and can’t be bothered with the extremely inconvenient task of actually hanging up the phone at the end of the call.
Back to the Speaker Button
This new paradigm where both parties in a call can disconnect made it to IP phones too: it allows me to be lazy with my disconnecting practice on calls I make.
I am now talking on the phone through the speaker, typing on my computer at the same time, multi-tasking half-focused on the call (sorry folks, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to give my full attention to all phone calls). And when the call ends, I simply continue typing – the other party will disconnect the call anyway.
Well, others are catching on to this technique of mine, so sometimes I find myself left in a call that “officially” ended, simply because both parties decided to put the responsibility of disconnecting on the other.
At other times, I press the “speaker” button to disconnect a call, but the other person beat me to the disconnection, only to find the dial tone of a new call I have just initiated (by mistake).
User Interfaces are hard
There’s no disconnection protocol for humans, telling us which party should disconnect, leaving me to my misery on a daily basis when using my beloved IP phone.
Getting a user interface to work smoothly is hard. As our phones become more complex, this is going to be a main issue for users (not the disconnecting issue, but the interaction with the interface issue), and thus for phone developers and manufacturers.
Will we ever rid ourselves of calls that just never end or from the sound of superfluous dial tones? Will the slew of smartphones further complicate matters with their downloadable applications and new input methods? Will we ever polish the phone’s UI enough?
Or … are we just doomed to suffer from the socially awkward lack of a standardized user interface protocol?