Technology is Broken – The Generational Pitch for Unified Communications

In my job I spend a lot of time trying to convince an older generation why they should be adopting new technologies. I really enjoy seeing the responses I get when I explain to baby boomers the types of things Gen X and Y are doing with computers, mobile phones and other portable electronics. As a test subject I often run ideas by my parents…both of which are baby boomers. Actually my dad missed by 1 year but I’ll let him squeak through for the purposes of discussion.
Every time I mention a new technology to my parents they respond with significantly less enthusiasm than I expected. Pushing even harder I try to get my parents to adopt these new services and am always met with some level of resistance. Their attitude is that the technology is broken which usually comes accompanied with “I don’t know how”. This made me think that maybe they are right and technology is broken for this generation. With a little more thought I realized it isn’t technology that is broken…it’s that this generation finds a way to break it. This may be a cynical comment so let me put it another way…the older generation will never fully appreciate the drive for a younger generation to adopt particular technologies.
I remember when I moved to Thailand and my mother was really concerned we’d lose contact. I told them they should try Yahoo or Skype. If I can recall Skype never worked for us because my father had some mystery installation problem so off we went down the Yahoo path. Instant Messaging was a new concept to my parents. They just didn’t get it at first. Meanwhile Gen X and Y are all too familiar with this real-time two-way messaging system. I’d start by sending a simple message asking if my dad was available to talk. Then I’d see the line at the bottom of my IM window showing that he was typing a response. I would wait 5 or 10 minutes and finally my screen would scroll up about 20 lines. My dad had just send me his entire end of the conversation with one press of the enter key. I’d of course reply with a very short IM and again I’d wait patiently for 5-10 minutes for yet another essay response. I had to keep reminding him that this wasn’t like email…IM was designed to provide an interactive communication experience. Even after using Yahoo now for 3 years with them I rarely get a response that includes less than 3 sentences.
For years I tried to convince my parents to buy a CD player. After lots of pressing they finally did and that soon became a DVD player along with a Dolby Digital receiver. I took them shopping and picked out a real slick system complete with optical cables, 5 speakers and a subwoofer. We got it home and of course it was my job to set it up which I quite enjoy to be honest. I’m all grins thinking finally my parents have entered the technology era when no sooner had I completed the connections than my dad asks “how can we connect the tape deck and VCR?” So much for component video and optical cables…in that one question my dad managed to rewind this technology experience by almost 10 years.
Back to the Yahoo story… After some time on Yahoo I decided to try Yahoo voice with my parents. I distinctly remember the first attempt; I was chatting with my mother via IM and I clicked the call button to initiate a voice session with her. The requisite 5 minutes went by and nothing. I tried again this time telling her to click the accept button. This immediately created confusion as I forgot to mention the accept button was actually not a physical button at all and was in fact in the same window in which we were having our IM conversation. While this was happening my mother was sending IMs indicating she couldn’t hear me. I was baffled…on my end of the IM she hadn’t even accepted the voice session yet she was expecting to hear me. After some questioning she said I just hear a dial tone. Sure enough she had picked up the telephone on the stand beside the computer.
We did finally conquer that and now enjoy fairly regular voice calls with Yahoo although they usually start with her accepting the voice session followed by a very long pause. In the background I’ll hear shuffling and whispering to my father all while I’m continuously saying “hello…I can hear you already….”
In fairness to them they have lived with a certain set of expectations when it comes to communications. Voice is via the telephone, video is via TV, and text is via the computer. Unified Communications oddly enough would bridge this generational divide quite nicely. While a Gen X or Y would accept the call on the computer…the baby boomer could pick up the phone (as in my mother’s situation) and still connect successfully to the voice session I initiated. In fact, it likely wouldn’t even occur to the Gen Y that anyone would even want to answer a call on a traditional telephone.
I was visiting my parents in Canada last month for vacation. For my parents it was an opportunity for me to do all those things they had put on a to-do list when Mike comes home. First on the list (as usual) was reconnecting the stereo. I’m not sure how it happens…maybe its magic stereo fairies…but every time I visit them the stereo is mysteriously disconnected again. I understand the confusion that even one universal remote introduces but they have no less than 4. My mother doesn’t stand a chance and just gives up on TV watching at all when my father isn’t around. Anyway…I had to pull out the cabinet and rewire the stereo from scratch. This time I pressed my dad really hard saying “are you sure you really need the VCR connected?” They did after all only have 5 tapes. 2 of which were purchased the same time as the original VCR. He claimed it was a “just in case” thing so I diligently connected it realizing that even if my parents understood it was a dying technology there would no doubt be family and friends that would produce videos and expect my parents to be able to play this aging media.
Second on the list was fixing the computer. This seems to be an endless source of entertainment…or at least I wish I could call it that. My father’s hobby in retirement seems to be keeping his computer running which is an arduous task. Oddly enough my father was one of the first on the block to buy an 8086 when they first came out. I remember having a Timex Sinclair TS-80, Coco 3, Coleco Adam, etc. It would seem that our household was destined to be a technology trendsetter. Sure enough…the technology broke again.
One of the best and worst things to happen in the 80s was opening up the PC component market. Now savvy engineers, hobbyists, and computer nerds could take the best parts from the cheapest shops and produce a better PC than the box stores. Unfortunately this poured over into the “I know enough to be dangerous” crowd with people like my parents getting suckered into unnecessary upgrades that a 15 year old gamer working at the local electroncis store sold them. Now my dad has a 4th generation video processor that is faster than a cat running from a garden hose, meanwhile he is still gated by his 50 words a minute typing. There just isn’t enough screen action in Snood to warrant that kind of power.
The result is that millions of people now have botched PCs pieced together from various hardware sources and are endlessly having problems…not to mention similar issues with software. My father purchased a great new PC. I convinced him to go with the all-in-one job and forgo any upgrades until deemed necessary after using it for some time. This model came with the latest Microsoft OS. Months later I found out my dad was still using the older PC frequently. I inquired and he answered that there was a program that just wouldn’t run on XP and he was forced to use 95. To me this was ludicrous…I could see the whole DVD/VCR thing happening again. Try as I might to introduce him to new programs he was insistent that he had already overcome the learning curve of this particular application and just had to use it going forward. A full 2 years later he still has the other PC connected beside the new one.
This technology allergy is not something belonging only to my parents. There is a natural resistance to change. For the new generation this is still the case however the threshold for change is much higher. We’ve spent the last 2 decades tagging children with ADHD because their behavior seems erratic and unfocussed. More recently we’re thinking this is simply a result of raising children in a hyperconnected environment. We have significantly more stimuli than we did 40 years ago. Children today can use a mouse by 3, own a computer by 5, talk on a mobile phone by 8 and design a Facebook homepage by 10; yet we call them antisocial and unfocussed when they constantly send SMSs, check email and IM, download multiple videos and MP3s, and interact with an online social community of 20 or more friends.
Back to my vacation last month… my older sister is quite tech savvy considering she really never displayed any interest in all the gadgets and gizmos we had around the house. She has a Facebook page, a family mobile phone plan, and stays connected with all her peeps. As part of an upgrade plan she gave her older mobile phone to my parents. Like cavemen with a coke bottle my parents struggled to find value in having a mobile phone in their life relegating it to an emergency line only. One day while out with my father we needed to ask my mother a question about what to pick up at the grocery store. I made the observation “dad, you should have a mobile phone”. His response was “I have one already”. Great I thought…and proceeded to tell him to call my mother. Turns out the mobile phone was sitting in his dresser drawer. So much for an emergency line.
After some convincing of the value of carrying it, the next outing was a little more productive. This time it was the reverse…we needed to contact my father. Now I knew he took the phone with him, thinking I had already won this technology battle. Sure enough we couldn’t get him. When he returned home it turned out he kept it powered off. After all it was an emergency line.
I had had enough. I sat my parents down and told them they needed to get a family plan with 2 phones that needed to be carried at all times. All of the sudden they were on board and off we went to the shopping center to seal the deal. During negotiations with the sales lady my dad now all of the sudden was an expert on mobile communications wanting a phone with SMS, MMS, Internet, Camera, etc. I did get them back down to a basic communication device but he was insistent in knowing exactly how many megabytes he had and how many SMSs he could send with each plan.
I had another 4 days with them after the purchase of the phones and I was determined to make my parents use them. Every opportunity I would say “call mom on her cell” or “ask dad to get milk”. Finally…I had won but technology was to break yet again.
One night my dad and I were sitting up at the computer and my mother’s mobile phone rang. It rang and rang and both my father and I wondered why she didn’t answer. Moments later my mother came upstairs twisted in a knot saying the phone doesn’t work. I was baffled…of course it worked. Her response “all I heard was dial tone”. She had once again answered the home landline phone. I had to explain yet again that if someone called her mobile she needed to answer her mobile.
We all think that unified communications is the result of a new generation of communication. That’s definitely true. In bringing together all the various communication technologies under one umbrella we are able to improve time to market, time to response, and any number of things. While the younger generations prefer to communicate via IM, the older generation can continue to use voice, meeting in the middle with service convergence and device convergence. My mother had the immediate expectation that she should be able to answer a voice all on whatever device she thought was appropriate for a normal voice call. In fairness to her…shouldn’t this be the goal of communication convergence…any service from any device? Unified communications seamlessly integrates all aspects of human and device interaction giving the user control of the experience. In doing so they not only add value to their business and social life but they help bridge the generational divide.

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