Sure, you're familiar with how chat works on your phone (even if you have no idea why one of your friends got the “happy dance” emoji you sent while another person only got a box with an X in it). But chat has been around a lot longer than smartphones. And it's used for a lot more things beyond food, pets, kids, and relationships.
In field service, chats are generally focused on logistics: schedules, availability of parts, how-to explanations, status updates, and the like. Chatting can be text- or audio-based, with video capabilities also becoming increasingly popular. (You can expect to see more video capabilities in Zinier products emerging from our just-announced partnership with Blitzz, a platform for live, remote video support and inspection.)
In fact, various technologies have been used to power chat functionality – in one form or another -- for centuries. And with each new incarnation of chat, savvy companies have always stolen from been inspired by the best ideas from the past. Here’s a look at how the world of chat has evolved over the years.
1,000 BC: For the Birds?
At its core, a chat is simply a series of messages relayed from one (or more) person to another. So how is that different from a conversation? A conversation is a real-time process, while a chat gives you more flexibility. You can respond immediately or hold off until later. Being able to dial yourself in and out of the exchange means you can fit in your side of the discussion at your convenience, rather than requiring all parties to be engaged at the same time.
While this non-real-time aspect of chat is one of its most compelling features, a chat can get derailed if there’s too much latency. For example, if two people are discussing plans for later on in the day, and there’s a lag time of several hours between the two sides of the discussion, the whole exercise becomes kind of pointless.
That lag time was a key limitation of one of the earliest tools used to enable chat: the carrier pigeon. Each side would entrust their message to one of these birds, which would be released to head off to its destination. Upon receiving the bird and its message, the other party could send a response, and the chat would continue in this manner. Winged chat technology dates back around 3,000 years. Military applications advanced the state of the avian art over the years, from Genghis Khan through World War II. Bird-based messaging has also played a key role in works of fiction, from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter.
With this form of communication, there was always a huge lag between “Hey, how you doing?” and “No complaints.” Pigeon-based messaging had other limitations as well. Your message was at the mercy of the elements and could easily be derailed if the bird was attacked. (In the heyday of the “pigeon post," maybe nobody believed you if you claimed “the dog ate my homework," but "the dog attacked the pigeon delivering my homework" was a plausible excuse.) But on the plus side, the high overhead and per-message costs coupled with the complex maintenance requirements pretty much ensured that the system remained free of spam.
Late 1800s: “The Victorian Internet”
The contemporary perception of the telegraph is that it was a clunky and expensive mode of communication. And telegrams -- at least according to their portrayal in old movies -- were mostly reserved for relaying either tragic news or concise and snarky insults to one’s business and romantic rivals. (Since telegrams were priced by the word, you received bonus snark points by spending less cash for the privilege of insulting your enemies using fewer words than anybody would have thought possible.)
The reality, however, was somewhat different. The telegraph was used for a wide variety of different types of communications -- not just for urgent or important events, but for casual chatting, dating, financial transactions, logistics, and just about everything else we use chat for today. And while we generally think of telegrams as a one-way affair -- used the way we typically use greeting cards today, for congratulatory messages or condolences for which no response is expected -- they were often used to facilitate ongoing two-way chats.
In fact, in his book The Victorian Internet, author Tom Standage notes that the telegraph “revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others…. Out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.” Sound familiar? Basically, the Victorians were chatting about everything we use chat for today -- both personally and professionally -- over the telegraph.
1973: The Modern Era of Chat
The first digital chat service that resembled what we think of today as real-time chat functionality may have been Talkomatic, developed at the University of Illinois in 1973. By 1979, the actual command “chat” had popped up as part of the pioneering online service called The Source. In 1980, CompuServe began marketing a chat service that it dubbed a “CB Simulator.” (At the time, CB radios were far more popular than online tools for chatting.) Online chat quickly outstripped CBs, radio, and over the next decade or two, literally hundreds of competing chat protocols and services would be launched. Memorably, in the late 1990s, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger Service and AOL’s AIM competed for dominance in a market that would eventually forget both of them.
(AOL, for those who may not recognize the name of the early Internet trailblazer, was an early Internet Service Provider that also produced a number of content platforms. The company also produced and distributed well over a billion CDs and floppy disks offering free trials of its services. According to a former AOL executive, AOL once produced half of all the CDs manufactured and, at its peak, AOL utilized 100% of the world’s CD-production capacity for several weeks.)
Early 2000s: Chat Goes Mobile
The mobile phone is responsible for (at least) two key developments in the evolution of chat:
- Different entities in the mobile chat universe can communicate with other entities, but things often get lost in translation. Different OS platforms (notably iOS and Android) each have their own flavors of chat services that play well together in some ways, but not others. (Emojis, for example, may get translated into words when emoji-filled messages sent on one platform are sent to a recipient on another platform.) Even influential apps such as the Meta portfolio of messaging tools (Facebook comments, Messenger interactions, and so forth) have their own limitations when trying to communicate with each another.
- Have you ever signed up to receive texts from a company and noticed the boilerplate language (that you need to acknowledge) that informs you that you’re consenting to receiving a certain volume of text messages from that company? In part, that’s a legacy of the way consumers used to pay for texting services. In the early days, mobile service plans typically only a modest number of texts (sent or received) as part of your monthly fee. As the cost for relaying text messages declined and competition for mobile customers increased, the number of free messages skyrocketed -- from a few dozen a month, to hundreds or thousands a month, to unlimited. And just like that, the lives of teenagers everywhere were forever changed.
2016: I For One Welcome Our New Chatbot Overlords
From bird-based chatting to their mobile phone incarnation, one thing remained constant about chat functionality: It was basically text based. Sure, carrier pigeons could transport illustrations, and cell phones could insert emojis (even if they would sometimes be inexplicably replaced by those rectangles with X’s in them). And eventually, texts could include file attachments that could be images, audio, or video files. But the bulk of the messages on these platforms were mostly text. (It’s called “texting” for a reason.) And most of the texting taking place was strictly human-to-human.
But that began to change with the advent of chatbots.
Some early chatbots had appeared decades earlier. In the late 1960s, the pioneering chatbot ELIZA was developed at MIT’s AI labs. ELIZA often mimicked the behavior of a psychotherapist, repeating back key statements (as written text), or asking probing questions about topics that were conspicuously absent from the conversation (“I notice you haven’t mentioned your parents…”). ELIZA pushed the boundaries of its time in its ability to respond intelligently to natural language. But the explosive growth in chatbots would take another 50 years, as chatbots evolved into more visual creatures. Today’s chatbots often (but not always) have some kind of visual avatar that conveys at least a hint of a personality.
The explosion in the chatbot population took place in 2016, when Facebook Messenger enabled developers to incorporate chatbots on that platform. Within a year, the chatbot population had ballooned to over 100,000.
However, the intelligence displayed by these AI-powered entities varies widely. They’re typically limited in their understanding of language and in their knowledge of the world. One bright spot: chatbots and chat systems designed for purpose-built applications are often able to respond in a consistently more meaningful way.
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