“It’s deja vu all over again”1

Latest Attempt at Video Phone Is Light Years Past Early Tries — Wall Street Journal2

Smile, The Videophone’s Ringing — Forbes3

Look Who’s on the Telephone! — Time4

Using Technology to Add New Dimension to the Nightly Call Home — The New York Times5

These headlines, plus more, have all appeared in the last eight weeks. I feel like I’m having flashbacks. It as if we’re back in the 1960s, when videophones were first heralded as the next great thing.

If you’ve attended an InContext training session, you might recall that we start by recounting a story contrasting the success of the telephone with the failure of the videophone. (If you know the story, skip ahead to “What the press is writing about.”)

Why the original videophone was destined to fail

Our story compares the success of the telephone with the experience of the home videophone. The videophone is pretty amazing technology; it definitely satisfies the “cool” factor. It was amazing back in the 1960s and it remains amazing today. Yet AT&T, Panasonic, and other companies have been unsuccessful in getting consumers to adopt the videophone. They failed because videophones didn’t support the users’ work practice.

Let’s consider the evolution of the telephone. The phone has progressed from originally being bolted to the wall in a general store or post office to becoming a portable unit in any room of the private home to developing into the cell phone. People now use telephones from anywhere, informally chatting with friends and family while in their intimate space. The point is that the telephone is successful because it built on and extended telephone users’ work practice.

Now consider the videophone. It required you to be in one place; you had to be directly in front to use it. It was as though the videophone forced us back to the turn of the 20th century by bolting us to one spot. What’s more, the movement around the house let the phone into our personal lives; we can be on the phone no matter what we’re doing or the state of our appearance. The videophone felt as though it was violating that private space.

To develop successful products, websites, applications, and so on we have to first understand the users’ work (or life) practice. If we don’t, we’ll end up like the developers of the videophone—with cool technology that no one would use.

What the press is writing about

The videophone that the press is currently reviewing is the Beamer from Vialta, Inc. (you can also link to the full text of some of the reviews I’m referencing from there). The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Forbes articles (confirmed by Vialta’s website) all tell me essentially the same things. I’ve learned how much it costs. ($500 for a twin-pack since both parties need one. Additional devices are $299 each.) I know what kind of a phone I need (any analog phone, not cell phones). I know what kind of other special equipment or wiring is required (none). I’ve been told what it takes to set it up (it’s easy, just plug in your phone line). I know what it looks like (3 ½ inch LCD screen, overall size of 8 inches x 6 inches x 2 inches, reminiscent of a Lucite picture frame). I have a review of the video quality (pretty good, but if the lighting is bad the image is bad. If the connection quality deteriorates, the video can freeze temporarily or be out of synch with the audio). I know about the privacy features (you can refuse a video link, or sent a static image instead of video).

The reporters are favorably comparing the Beamer with the old systems. The last videophones from 10 years ago were expensive ($1500), bulky (a big black box that sat on the floor), hard to set up, and had poor quality images. Therefore the Beamer must be better, right? People will want to buy one, won’t they? Consumers didn’t buy videophones before because they were too expensive or too hard to use, correct?

What we should be thinking about

Even though these are mainstream or business publications, the press reports are all in the technology sections. The reporters have heard the siren call of cool technology, but have they considered whether or not the videophone will support people’s lives in order to assess if anyone wants it? Sort of. To be fair, both The NY Times and The Wall Street Journal gave some thought to this issue. But ultimately, thinking about this is not their job — it’s our job. The important questions designers must ask are:

  • Does our design support and extend the practice, or did we break it?
  • What’s the work or life practice this videophone is trying to support?

Is the practice supported or broken?

If the practice being supported is personal conversation, the Beamer hasn’t overcome the previous failings of videophones.


The Beamer videophone is now small enough that you can walk around with it. However, it would be feel like walking around holding a picture frame that you are talking to. Using the Beamer would be more like having a person follow you from room-to-room. You couldn’t converse until he or she got in the room or within eyeshot.


You can tuck a phone under your chin or put it on speaker, letting you can do other things while you talk. From what I can tell, you can’t do that with the Beamer; it ties up your hands.

Intimate conversation

The privacy features also break the existing work practice. Granted, you don’t have to accept the call. But if you do accept the call and then put on the static image, it’s going to seem as if you are having one of those conversations where the other person is on the opposite side of the door. Second, we all know that sometimes people press the mute button so they can be doing something else while listening to us talk. Usually you aren’t really aware of that. The static photo would be as though you had a “I’m not completely paying attention to you” button flashing on your current phone.

What’s the supported practice?

The Beamer may find its market by supporting a practice other than personal telephone conversations. The New York Times article made some fascinating points. The Times reports that traveling workers are trying to use instant messaging, phone, faxes, email, and even videoconferencing to keep up with family life and share family moments. The article describes how parents are reading bedtime stories over the phone from their hotel rooms or sending digital snapshots of their trip via email.

The Beamer can support this practice — maintaining family relationships and sharing family moments while far away. When you are home with your child and reading a story, you are both sitting closely together in one spot. When you and your spouse are looking at your photo album, you aren’t running around the house. Mobility is not part of the practice; a sense of shared intimacy and seeing the same thing is what needs to be supported. A portable videophone that can work with a hotel phone system may work for that. That’s why videoconferencing works in a business setting. The supported work practice is that of having a business meeting. You sit in relatively one place during a business meeting, and it’s expected that people can see your appearance.

It will be interesting to see — if the only new work practice over the original videophone is travelers connecting back to family — whether that’s a big enough market; there is no reason to think anyone else will be interested in spending $500 for a videophone. But I’m not going to predict the future for the Beamer. I’m only going to wish the product team well and hope that they have success. I don’t want them to be reinforcement for our story about the failure of the videophones.

I also don’t want your product to be fodder for another story of a product that failed. Avoid that by being sure your first step in design is understanding the existing work practice.

  1. Yogi Berra. Great American philosopher (and professional baseball player and manager)
  2. Katherine Boehret, “Latest Attempt at Video Phone Is Light Years Past Early Tries,” Wall Street Journal, 14 August 2002, (22 October 2002).
  3. Arik Hesseldahl, “Smile, The Videophone’s Ringing,” Forbes, 20 August 2002, (22 October 2002).
  4. Anita Hamilton, “Look Who’s on the Telephone!,” Time, 16 September 2002, page 86.
  5. Maggie Jackson, “Using Technology to Add New Dimension to the Nightly Call Home,” The New York Times, 22 October 2002 (22 October 2002).