Thursday, September 13, 2012

Snail Mail - Flawed, but it Works - Just Like TDM

Pretty busy writing and researching lately, but I just had to get this posted today.

Call me old school, but I still use the postal service - just like I still read newspapers, use a paper-based calendar, and listen to vinyl. I'm even still into silent movies, table hockey and board games, but let's save all that for another blog, or just come by for a visit.

Bear with me, foks, there is a telecom thread coming. I got a check in the mail yesterday from a client in California, and was kinda surprised to see the state of the envelope - see below - this is pretty much exactly how it looked.

As you can see, the envelope wasn't sealed, the flap was torn, and the letter was half-opened. It's a total mess, yet the letter got to me, and the check inside was perfectly fine. There was no damage, and anyone can see this was a check, yet nobody saw fit to take it and pretend to be me at their local Money Mart (and the check wasn't just a few hundred dollars, so it could have been a nice payday).
I've actually had stranger things happen with my mail, but generally, the service works fine for me. Sure, sending mail from the U.S. to Canada costs more and takes much longer, but it does get here. Email has its virtues, but regular mail still has value too. This letter travelled over 2,000 miles, and to arrive in my box in this shape tells me that the mail service works pretty well. Sure, I'm probably lucky too, but the bank took my check, and the end result was achieved.
The parallels to telecom struck me right away. Snail mail is like TDM - both are great for what they were designed for, but they're costly and complex services to provide, and are being replaced by cheaper, more efficient alternatives. I'll bet you'll have to think hard if I ask you whether it's been longer since you last mailed a letter, or made a legacy landline phone call.
With all that said, both services still function very well, but most people simply don't value them any more. We used to take the reliability of these services for granted, and when email crashes or VoIP sounds like you're under water, we just shrug and carry on. These shortcomings are part of the experience, but they never would have been tolerated with legacy services. Sure, there were lots of problems with mail service, but the rain or shine delivery promise of the U.S. mail is about as ingrained in the culture as apple pie. That reliability isn't what it used to be, but the mail comes 6 days a week (for now - but only 5 in Canada), and for those still using TDM, the service pretty much still has 100% uptime.
I've long maintained that the postal service is really in the privacy business. The mission is to deliver letters and parcels from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Mail is private and personal - the seal on an envelope is a pretty flimsy form of security, and it only works because it's implicitly understood that you NEVER open someone else's mail. Postal workers don't do it (well, they're not supposed to!), and we don't even do it when we see other people's mail. For the most part, personal privacy is respected.
Yet, the letter in the photo above got to me just fine. I can't say whether anybody actually looked at the contents, but it arrived in the same condition it would have if the envelope was sealed. The idealist in me would say that the privacy principle was upheld here, and even with an unsealed, half-open letter, nothing was compromised when it easily could have - or maybe I'm just lucky!
Let's get back to telecom. In the TDM world, there's a dedicated circuit between the callers. For the most part, it's totally secure and private, the reliability is virtually 100%, and the quality is pristine. IP-based calls may be far more efficient in terms of using network resources, but all of these TDM virtues are somewhat compromised - that's why phone calls today are practically free. 
Now, think about my letter being a VoIP packet in a data network. I can't articulate the specific comparisons, but a packet with this much damage would never get to its intended destination. Or, if it did, it would be exposed to all kinds of security and privacy vulnerabilities along the way that any wannabe hacker could have a field day with. I'm just saying that the potential for bad things to happen here is very high, and it's part of the bargain when you move on from legacy to nextgen technologies.
So, while TDM and the postal share similar baggage, they still have their virtues. Their successors no doubt have their advantages, and there's really no turning back, but the price of progress can be higher than expected. There's no way that the equivalent of my letter in a data network would have gotten to me, and while this isn't an everyday occurrence, it's a reminder about why what we had worked so well for so long.
It's the same reason I still listen to vinyl. If you didn't grow up with it, you can't possibly understand what you're missing. As with VoIP and email, digital music definitely has its virtues, but even with a bit of homework, it won't take long to understand the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that vinyl is hands-down superior. Time to get back to work - if I have to explain this, then you really don't know, but I'd need a entirely separate blog to debate these things. Hmm....

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