Whatever happened to Microsoft Phone?

Many years ago, I had access to a piece of software called Microsoft Phone. It was distributed with some versions of the Creative Labs Phone Blaster, a rather massive expansion card that combined a modem with a sound card. What made this combination really cool was that the card and the software turned your computer into a telephony device. It wasn't the first or only device on the block that could turn your computer into an answering machine — I had something in my computer in college that did the job as well (although I'm sure my roommate often times wished we just had a simple tape-based machine, especially when I would reboot my computer and it would knock him off the phone). It also wasn't the only software that could use your computer's microphone and speakers as a speakerphone — some Phone Blasters were bundled with completely different software that did that as well.

What made Microsoft's product so interesting is that it was integrated with its fledgeling text-to-speech and voice-recognition programs, and it used the common MAPI message storage system. Back in the day, when Windows 95 was still new, mail storage could be set up as more of a common database. At least, the mail storage location was a simple control panel icon, and the built-in Windows Mail client could connect to the MSN service without an issue, without having to use any custom email software. (It seemed simpler then; maybe it could still be done that way today, since I'm back to using Windows Mail in Vista instead of Outlook or Thunderbird or Outlook Express or even Live Mail.)

In any case, installing the Microsoft Phone software included installing Microsoft Voice, which allowed for some voice recognition. Trying to control the computer with it was more of a gimmick than being really useful at all. (Looking back on it now, it's hard to expect more out of 1995 technology, although I'll get into that in a minute.) The command set was fairly limited, although what commands it did know, it did recognize fairly well, so although there wasn't a lot you could do with it, you could at least do those things consistently.

Now, here's where things got interesting, as far as Microsoft Phone was concerned. One of Phone's features was that you could dial in to your phone and enter a code to access the program and start issuing commands. Fairly standard fare for answering machines. And, just like any ordinary answering machine, you could issue those commands by using a touchtone keypad. Where it started to set things apart was, Phone would prompt you for commands, and not by using pre-recorded prompts. It would read you instructions using text-to-speech reading from a help file. While this might not sound like such a big deal, especially in an age where sound compression and disk space are cheap, back then, this was huge. Phone was able to provide a rich, vocal interface without having to save megabytes of prerecorded files.

The next interesting thing it could do, because of text-to-speech, was it could read extended information about your message. It could not only announce the time and date of a message, and read the phone number, but it could also read the name of the caller. If that caller was in your address book (remember, this was all coming from your MAPI store), it could read that personalized name. Granted, the pronunciation wasn't always perfect, but it was still a very cool feature to hear your computer read the name of your caller to you over the phone along with the message.

Now, this was back in the days of dialup, and you could set your computer to call into your ISP and check and download email during the day. This brings me to the next very cool feature. Remember, all messages were stored in the single MAPI store. So when you play new messages, included in that was your computer reading your new email messages to you. The first time I showed this feature off to a friend, her jaw hit the floor as soon as she realized what was happening.

And finally, because this was running with the Microsoft Voice speech recognition engine, not only could you give the commands using your touchtone phone buttons, you could speak your commands and have the machine respond.

So where is this technology today? As I was writing this, I was thinking about how cool this was back in 1995, but I was questioning how it would work a decade later. In 1995, voice was still a preferred method of communication. Being able to call my computer and have it read my email to me would be a great feature. Today? Not so much. In 1995, 99% of email in my inbox was interesting and valid, came from human beings who sat down and thought about what they wanted to say, and wrote it as if they were writing a letter, with well-thought-out sentences and grammar. Today, most email is hastily dashed off, with lots of abbreviations, written with very little context. And that's only the ones I want to read, which is a minority. The majority of email I get now is mass mailings from corporations, or spam about prescription drugs I don't need or software that's not licensed or legal, or newsletters or chain letters or group mailings or any number of other impersonal communications — basically, nothing I'd need to phone home about.

However, the concept of having voice messages delivered to email is desirable. So I guess, a decade later, I'd be looking at the reverse of what was cool in 1995 — being able to connect a text-type device (i.e. an email browser) to my home message storage and get voice messages. It might be cool to have dictation transcribe that to text for very low bandwidth applications, but with the way email clients work these days, it'd almost be unnecessary. (Almost. I still use Pine over an SSH connection to read email from work, so text-only email and browsing isn't dead yet. At least not for me.)

I'm still intrigued by the concept of a software-controlled answering machine, one that could take messages, convert them to email (making the "from address" look like a phone number would be a nice touch), especially one that could be programmed to automatically answer and annoy calls from certain phone numbers (such as those identified charities that continue to call soliciting donations despite the request for no solicitations). In the end, we've got to go with something that "just works"; so although I tried to recapture those old glory days by buying the Microsoft Cordless Phone product around the turn of the century (that failed to live up to expectations, especially when it wasn't supported past Windows 98), we ended up buying a plain old telephone answering machine that isn't a piece of software installed on a computer — and my current roommates (i.e. my family) are much happier for it.

As far as voice control, I finally decided to play around with it in Vista the other day. I will say that I am impressed with how far it has come. For general navigation, there's this "say what you see" concept, where you can just say the name of what you see — the name of a link on a web page, for instance — and the computer will attempt to discern what you mean. You say the name of a command button or link, and it clicks it. However, it's still rather clumsy. I feel like I'm talking to my 1-year-old, having to repeat things over and over again, sometimes louder, sometimes trying to say things a different way. Dictation was especially frustrating, as you're supposed to be able to say "correct" and the words it just got wrong in order to fix it — and yet over and over again, as I was trying to dictate and correct, it started typing "correct this" and "correct that", like an old sitcom routine where the dullard keeps reciting stage directions.

And in that sense, it doesn't feel much different than 1995. Sure, you can actually dictate text now. But giving commands? That's been around for over 10 years, and we're still pointing and clicking with a mouse. At the end of the day, I couldn't see how it could possibly be any more convenient or useful than just using the freaking mouse or keyboard to directly input the location or text desired. Even if it does entertain my wife to listen to me try to use it....


It's so hard to send email programmatically

One look at the subject line, and I'm sure the first word that comes to the minds of the four people who might see this blog is, "Huh?" Sending email isn't hard. Programs do it all the time. Why can't a genius like you figure it out, Yakko?

Well, here's the problem. See, I'm writing a custom Windows application for a client. This application is essentially a database for storing the deposits and withdrawals of a handful of investment companies and their investors. In essence, it's copying what he tracked in spreadsheets. Since I'm moving this from spreadsheet to database, I can implement all new features for him like tracking performance over time, graph them, compare them to market indices, and the big new feature, generate PDF reports and email them instead of printing paper copies one by one.

He runs all of this on a PC in his home office. As such, I made sure I wrote the program to be as small and simple as possible. Sure I considered using SQL Server Express with Reporting Services to generate the reports, but how easy would that be for him to install, or back up the program, or send to his part-time clerk for easy data entry? Small and lightweight were part of my requirements here. And thanks to the .Net framework, I managed to write a pretty decent app, with a SQL Server CE database engine, that would fit on a floppy disk. Not that I could find a floppy disk to put it on anymore, but you get the idea.

The one part of the program that really disappointed me, though, was the email tool. Here I managed to generate these nice-looking PDF reports in real-time (using the PDFSharp library -- they say "the same drawing routines can be used to create PDF documents, draw on the screen, or send output to any printer", and in my experience it really was almost that easy to convert my paper printing code to make a PDF). But how to email them?

While it is true that the .Net framework includes some very simple routines for sending SMTP mail, which I have used before in various client-server, intranet, and web applications, the trick is they work really well if you're using them on a server. Ever send email from a personal computer on a dial-up connection? (Yes, he's still on dial-up; don't ask.) Even if you're on broadband on a static IP, chances are your address is identifiable as an end-user, and there's a very good chance your email will be rejected with prejudice.

Now, he can send out email using his email program of choice. Why? Naturally, because it's configured to use his ISP's email server. Because I want to keep this program as simple as possible, adding email configuration was not in the design; and, I could find no way to query Windows to discover (a) what email program he's using, and (b) what settings that program uses to send email. (I couldn't even be certain I could use the same settings -- he's on MSN; what if it requires SPA?)

When you think about it, it all makes sense. How easy it would be for spammers to write programs to do just that and send email out via a user's ISP's email server, instead of trying to send out from the easily-blockable local address.  If I recall correctly, viruses used to do just that, before email programs had to get better at locking external program access out.

So what do I do? I create a "mailto" link with the appropriate subject and body parameter for every PDF that must get generated (but no attach parameter; although that used to work once upon a time, apparently that got to be too big of a security risk as well, and while some email programs simply ignore it, Outlook will refuse to start and throw an error instead), then delay about 5 seconds (because in some of my test scenarios, if a second "mailto" link was getting processed at just the wrong point of processing of the first one, the second would trigger an error instead of opening a second window). Once all the mail windows were open, an Explorer window would be opened to the folder containing all the PDFs generated, so they could be manually dragged and dropped on the appropriate mail windows.

I ask you: how much does that suck?

Probably the only redeeming point in this is that, at this early stage in the game, manual intervention is desired, so he can see the reports and the messages before they go anywhere. It's going to get old very fast, though...


It's not a toy, it's for business

My wife and I got Tablet PCs for our business. We've been wanting them for a while. We decided to pick up a couple HP Pavilion tx1420us models. These are considered "home entertainment" models, not business models, but they had decent specs for the price.

The screen isn't as big or as fine as I would like. This replaces a Thinkpad T40p, which had a nice large screen and a 1400x1080 resolution. This tablet has a relatively small screen with a lot less real estate at 1200x800. Also, I've found that the pen takes a lot more pressure to use than I would like. It's quite tiring to write with for long periods of time, and it has a tendency to "stutter" when drawing over any distance.

But I definitely like the tablet. I've wanted one for a long time, and I'm glad I have one. They are fun to use, not to mention pretty easy when "point and click" is literally pointing with a pen and physically tapping it. There's something rather satisfying about being able to move things around screen by grabbing it with a pen and pulling it around. It makes it feel a little more "hands-on" than like I'm using a remote control (i.e. the mouse or touchpad).

It comes with Vista, which at the moment I have this sort of love/hate relationship with. I know the UI enhancements are all eye candy, but honestly it makes the computer "feel" next-gen, like we've finally progressed. However, it is very different than older versions of Windows. When I first sat down in front of XP, it didn't take long to find my way around, because it was so similar to Windows 2000, which was similar enough to 98... In Vista, I'm still trying to figure out how to do tasks that were second-nature to me before. So far, though, it hasn't been "too bad". I haven't run into any driver or compatibility problems, and I found the dialog box that pops up every time you launch a program easy to turn off (convenience trumps security, for now). I'm sure a big part of this is I'm running on all-new hardware that came with Vista — I still have no intention of ever trying to upgrade my older machines to this OS, even if they're still running long after XP is dead and buried.