Aug 26, 2005

voip will drive laptop innovation

I've been using Skype fairly regularly for the past few months, and now also Talk (dot google dot com).  But one of the more annoying things about VoIP apps like these isn't the software user experience -- they've got the basics (discovery, call initiation, volume control, etc.) nailed.  What's frustrating is the hardware.  Who actually enjoys using one of the typical stereo headsets with boom mics, massively-long cords and two plugs? 

I know I can't be the first to predict this, of course, but as these apps become more and more widely used, I think we'll see some interesting innovations in hardware design, especially in laptops...

  • Better bluetooth integration.  Have you ever tried pairing a Bluetooth headset with a PC?  I have, and despite lots of discussion that claims it's possible, I've found it to be an incredibly difficult thing to make work.  Microsoft needs to improve the BT stack in Windows to make this a no brainer:  enable the app to transparently discover the headset, pair it with the OS, and re-pair whenever it's in range.  It's a simple problem statement:  when the "phone" rings, there's no time to fumble about with buttons and pairing dialogs.
  • Better audio hardware in the machine. Laptop speakers are definitely getting better, even in ultralights.  Microphones still have a ways to go, but I think even some simple improvements could help.  For one, make sure the mic is clearly labeled (so the user knows where it is), is of the directional variety, and is positioned facing the user, so that keyboard tapping doesn't drown out conversation.  For extra credit, how about a retractable mic, or, for privacy's sake, a fully retractable ear-bud with mic?
  • Auxiliary display laptops.  The Windows Vista team has been pimping their support for auxiliary displays on the outside of the clamshell.  The video demos I've seen show off using that as a media player or a mini-Outlook viewer; it could also be used as a presence status indicator / manager, and a way to manage inbound VoIP calls. 

I think all of these things need to be in addition to all the other great software and hardware innovation that's happening in this space.  Google's got to be doing something interesting with Android; Skype's already admitted to having a WiFi phone in the labs; and on the "blocking and tackling" end of the spectrum, just how long until consumer desktop monitors have handsets built in, or ship an optional USB handset as a must-have accessory?

There's plenty of room for improvement in the overall "person to machine" interface when it comes to VoIP, especially along the axes of convenience and ease-of-use.