A Picture Worth A Thousand Words, Free!

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Still holding its charge after more than a decade. Now that’s what I call battery life.

I blame Marketing.

I always blame Marketing.

It’s usually a safe bet, because they don’t understand the concept of blame, nor error or failure; only success or relative success. So the introduction of Picture Messaging was a relative success… a dismal relative success.

Marketing had no idea what to do with picture messaging. To be fair, neither did anyone else. Suddenly phones began to have cameras built in, and networks started to have enough bandwidth that a little lo-res picture could be transmitted and received before the end of the universe. It was a solution looking for a problem, a way to do badly but instantly something that used to take days to do at all. It was Something New. Obviously nobody could know how much to charge for it.

And it wouldn’t have mattered much if Marketing had known how much to charge, because Billing couldn’t do the charging yet. PM was implemented on a whole new class of equipment that the billing engine didn’t know how to talk to. Teaching machines to communicate is exactly as difficult as teaching people to communicate, for exactly the same reasons — the principal factors being vocabulary, dialect and failure to listen. We engineers were having quite enough trouble getting the picture kit to talk to the network, instead of sulking or trying to murder it.

So Marketing made a big announcement, in their usual breathless and misleading way: Picture Messaging! FREE For 3 Months! It would only work between a few compatible phones, and if both customers were on our own network. The three-month period was intended to give Marketing a chance to see how many customers might use the facility, and Billing time to implement a method of charging for it. (And if three months sounds like a long time, believe me, it’s not. It took nearly six months to get the charging mechanism right. Meanwhile...)

The night it went live, I was in the Operations Centre, the grand name for a nondescript shed on a nondescript trading estate somewhere outside London. Just after midnight the least feral of the shift operators, let’s call him Amin, added the picture server to the live network configuration and recycled to make it take effect. We — analysts, engineers, project manager and assorted hangers-on with an interest — watched the monitors for signs that anyone was using it.

For a time, nothing happened. Those of us unaccustomed to night work were yawning. Then Amin said “There’s one.” We all looked at his screen, on which a looped query had stopped reporting 0 and was now showing 1. The 1s scrolled upward as the zeroes had done before them, and after a while changed to 2s. “And another.” 2 skipped to 7 and then into double figures, heading for treble. “Looks like it’s working.” Woo-hoo, we all thought, with varying degrees of surprise, relief or elation. It’s a success. We’re part of a success. Break out the champagne. Lillian, shift leader for the night, mooched over from her big desk by the door to congratulate us.

“Can we see what they’re sending?” the project manager asked. “Marketing will want to know.”

None of us technicals had thought of that. We’d confirmed that a picture message could be sent from one phone and get all the way to another. We had found and eradicated the bottlenecks where messages got stuck and the holes where they went missing. At each step, either a message linked to a picture was where it should be, or it wasn’t. The picture itself was mostly, as intended, somewhere else. We had little need to view it until the message reached its destination.

Anyway, we only had two kinds of picture — one we’d taken in the test lab, or one of the phone manufacturer’s built-in samples. We knew how to identify message types and prove their existence on all the intermediate devices, but actually looking at their content…? For voice calls, that would be eavesdropping, and certainly illegal. For text messages, it might be a grey area. For pictures?

While we were mulling over the ethics of the situation, Amin opened another window and typed a handful of commands to retrieve the latest file stored in the picture server. An image formed, occupying the whole of his second screen. “Aaagh!” someone said, “pixel overload!” Amin smallerized the blocky picture to a couple of inches square, still larger than any phone we’d yet encountered, but small enough that we could now see what it was.

Well, we could make guesses. “Is that food?” Nobody was sure. “Yes, look, it’s on a plate.” Maybe. “Try another one.”

“Aaah.” This one was definitely identifiable, a baby’s smiling face, in poor focus. An inkling of the future began to present itself to us. Supposing a phone could be made capable of holding more than a few dozen pictures, and the tiny screens and rubbish camera lenses could be improved to near the quality of, say, a Polaroid, this could be a big deal for the camera industry. “No,” said some sage, “it’ll be a long time before that happens.” There was general agreement. Little did even we insiders realise how rapidly time itself was being miniaturised.

“Any more?” The counter now read over a hundred. Amin ran his query again. The window refreshed, and he immediately closed it. “What was that?” Lillian asked.

“Let’s try another,” Amin said. “Oh, it’s a cat.”

“What was that one before?” Lillian persisted. “It was message 102, open it up again.” She leaned over Amin.

“Remember, you asked for this,” he told her, re-opening the closed window. We variously looked, or stared, or looked away. “He’s a big boy.”

Lillian scoffed. “No he’s not.” She poked at Amin’s keyboard to close the window herself.

The project manager, perhaps concentrating on the possibility of a performance bonus, became agitated. “Can you do us a slideshow? Sample one in ten?”

Amin looked at Lillian, who nodded. Then, glad to have something to do, he merged his two chunks of code into one, and we all watched the results flicker. The project manager started tallying on a piece of paper. “Face… another baby… another cat… face… dog, that’s different… face… Oh, that’s not different, next please… Oh I don’t believe this! Are these all coming from the same customer?”

They were not. “OK, Lillian said, “that’s enough of that. Put those envious eyes away and get on with your work.” She looked at the rest of us and shook her head sadly. “Boys and their toys.”

Amin tried a me-too joke with his boss. “Fools and their t— ”

“I said, that’s enough,” Lillian repeated. “Log him” — nodding at the project manager — “into a secure session, read-only, and let him do his own counting. In the far corner, where nobody can overlook. I’m not having my staff corrupted by the perverts we call customers.” As if any shift operator could be further corrupted. It was practically a qualification for the job.

The project manager’s figures were never made public in any meeting I was at, but everyone soon knew something. Forty per cent was the whisper. Forty per cent of all pictures being sent from phone to phone were of some bloke’s naughty bits. Blokes’, plural. Who they were, who were the recipients of these delightful displays, we didn’t know. “We’re not the nation’s moral guardian,” the Operations Manager told me, more than once. “What people do in the privacy of the insecure accounts they don’t understand is their own business.”

Could any of it have been done better? Could a directed marketing campaign have helped create a new style of communication, or a novel artform? Or were we doomed by human nature to hurtle straight to the bottom? I don’t know. In any case, the laborious and expensive PM was soon superseded by much simpler ways of sending much better pictures, which may have altered the proportions. And look at it another way: even at worst, perfectly innocent pictures outnumbered those others by 50%.

Still, I blame Marketing. It’s not like they mind.