Unified Communication

Written on 2017-06-18 16:04:25

Lately I've been thinking again about some way to unify (my) usage of different communication channels. Part of that is the additional distraction and lack of ease of use for some of the applications I'm forced to use.

This is partially a feature of my habits, i.e. I'm not a mobile phone user. At all. But "apps" like WhatsApp, WeChat, while thankfully having web clients, still force me to use a comparatively clunky interface.

Then we have Slack, the IRC clone that will eat every other IRC clone there is. Or maybe not. In my case it's the primary business-related communication form, after email.

Good that I'm not using Facebook, the moloch, but I imagine for a lot of people it's the primary way to use the web and internet. I haven't researched Facebook integration at all though, so there might be ways of integrating it more or less easily.

The previously mentioned channels were all active ones, but there's also a lot of passive consumption going on. (RSS and blogs, forums,) reddit, Hacker News are all channels that I frequently use. In case of reddit and Hacker News of course there's is the active element of posting, commenting, voting, but I rarely do that, so they fall under passive for me too.

So again, why unification? For all the above, getting notified (if new content is available) is a pain, comparatively. Both in the sense that for some of them (chat) the threshold is quite low, so reacting in near real-time is important, while for others it's absolutely the other way round, even though I'm still habitually checking them in case I'm bored (see how that goes?).

Unifying them would allow to aggregate, combine, filter in a general fashion instead of having (or not having in most cases) a distinct way to do that for each channel.

So again, would that solve the problem? I'm doubtful. On the one hand, there's clearly a need to remove friction. On the other hand, the cost of implementing it, the lack of distinctive features for each channel (visual mostly) would also undermine some of information. Possibly only at the start, it's hard to tell. I can however say that using RSS readers for me never worked out, precisely because the visual appearance is such a strong discriminator to (not) consume content. Though rtv, a console-based reddit client, worked rather well for some highly text-based content.

What other considerations are there? Well, the split between different contexts would be one thing. There's at least the work/life split for me, if not for many others.

Fidelity, as in, most text-based content can be viewed on the console, even if it might look better in a different renderer (browser). Showing pictures/clips is difficult on the console, but there are ugly hacks that can work around that problem if absolutely necessary (I'm personally not a fan).

Amount, blogs are rather infrequent, but have lots of text per each post, chat is very high frequent comparatively, but only has a few words per "post".

Context, again, there's also different groups in the personal context, that is, e.g. family, friends, different hobbies and interests, with each group having a somewhat overlapping set of sources.

So again, what can be solved? Technically, at least getting more sources into a single format is achievable. There are bridges from Slack to IRC, from RSS to IRC, etc. I'm choosing IRC here because it's a form of lowest common denominator, but similarly it could be mapped to email too. While IRC isn't good for long-form content, it can contain links which can then be viewed in other renderers, solving the notification issue. (Well, you still need to pay attention to the IRC client. In my case I'm always online on a VPS, so I need still to pass through notifications from the IRC client to the current local machine.)

What options would a unified architecture give us? E.g. having a single feed for chat, email, blog posts etc. for a group of people (channels). This can again be achieved manually, by tying in bots to post on behalf of a user, though in the architecture of IRC it wouldn't make sense to post some of these things publically - it's "your" view of the conversation, not the public view. That is, you'd want to view a feed with incoming emails, blog posts (Twitter, what have you) from a person inline.

Now, inertia. Given how XMPP basically failed and how each platform provider is aggressively trying to get people into their walled garden, what chance is there for a standard here?

Apart from that, can this idea be implemented purely client-side? AFAIK yes, there's still friction with the different technologies being integrated, but as a central communication hub this would still make sense.

Building on top I have some further (obvious) extensions in mind, the usual spam filters, deduplication, aggregation/search, also everything statistics basically, that can be applied on top.

Different interfaces would be available to have a view on the streams, or groups of streams. Traditionally this all hasn't worked out I feel, with the exception of very, very narrow things like email and text-based chat there's just a lot of variation going on.

How would this look like? For me, one console window to show everything, with desktop notifications on top. For others, the same in a browser perhaps, or (take a deep breath) a native application instead.

In any case, food for thought. I'm hoping to follow up on this with a more focused design at some point.


Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Olof-Joachim Frahm