User story: Hello Grandma!

User story: Hello Grandma!

The waterside has a magnetic draw. It pulls people down to the quay: young and old, tourists and locals alike. By 7am on a warm Saturday morning in July you will already encounter a diverse cast of characters. There are the dog walkers, of course, offering a quick ‘good morning’, and children on holiday, eager to try their hand at crabbing before breakfast and shrieking with a mixture of terror and delight as they pull clawed sea monsters from the shallow water.

They are joined by retired couples walking to the local shop for their morning paper and ‘bigwigs’ from the City, staying at the expensive hotel overlooking the water, anxiously pacing back and forth with phones held to their ears as they attend to matters which ‘just can’t wait’, even on the weekend.

The quay, you see, is one of the few places in this coastal village where you stand a chance of getting reliable network coverage. This small cloud of connectivity, which only arrived when the phone company upgraded the network about 12 months ago, has begun to define its character.

However, it wasn’t a dog walker or the city weekenders in smart shorts and checked shirts which caught my attention on this particular morning. Instead, there was a lady in her early 40s, wearing a bright blue summer dress, walking slowly alongside the water, while her two young boys ran circles around her. She slowed, holding out a Blackberry Passport at about waist height, level with the boys’ excited faces.

“Hello Grandma!” They yelled at the top of their voices, with an eagerness only those under the age of 10 can muster at this time of the morning. They waved at the screen of the Blackberry, no doubt transmitting a blur of hands, faces and shaky, lop-sided coastal scenery to where Grandma was sitting behind her PC or iPad, hundreds – possibly thousands – of miles away.

There is a generation growing up at ease with the notion of relatives who, from time to time, inhabit their family gatherings by way of a small glowing screen. It is not the same as being physically present and children don’t treat it that way. As one would expect, they are more concerned with the water splashing at their feet than the pixellated, slightly out-of-sync avatar of Grandma on the screen. There’s time for a quick hello, usually at the behest of their parents, and the children are off again, leaving Mum and Dad to carry on the call with Grandma.

There’s a pessimistic view that this kind of casual connectivity is a bad thing, but that presumes it is replacing time spent physically together with family members. In fact, it often supplements it, helping to keep far flung families talking until the next time they can be in the same place at the same time.

It raises other questions though, such as when the children – and parents – became comfortable enough to video call in public? Not long ago video calls were things you did huddled around a laptop at home, where you expected there would be reliable connectivity and a good webcam. This family clearly expected the high speed cellular connectivity to be present and were happy making use of it in a public, outdoor space. I’ve noticed more of that recently and not just in places like this little coastal village. In London, students walk through the streets ‘FaceTiming’ with friends and teenagers sit on the top deck of the bus video calling their mates in their bedrooms.

It has been fashionable for industry analysts to rubbish the notion of mobile video calling ever since the debacle of the 3G spectrum auctions in the early 2000s. There was flood of overly optimistic company presentations predicting video calling when skydiving, video calling from the car, video calling while running and every other permutation you could imagine. The analysts were right to be skeptical. For years the user experience of video calling made no practical or conceptual sense. However, slowly, quietly, it has become a thing on British streets and there will be far reaching consequences for bandwidth and device design, quite apart from social etiquette. I just hope someone still remembers to send Grandma an actual postcard…

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