“First tweeting - now chirping,” say the BBC on Google+, having noticed that two otherwise unrelated iPhone apps are, for unrelated reasons, named after birdsong.
Chirp is a new iPhone app that aims to solve the perennial problem faced by owners of smartphones whose manufacturers inexplicably crippled the Bluetooth support by design. This one uses sound: in the same way that dial-up modems and, before them, ZX Spectrums used to convert data to sound and send it down a phone line or store it on a tape, Chirp plays encoded data out of your phone speaker, and picks up incoming data with the mic. Brilliantly, they’ve taken the phone part out of a modem, and then put what’s left on a phone. It’s both elegant and faintly absurd, so obviously I love it, but I find myself wondering what the hell it’s for.
The fastest dial-up modem was rated 56kbps, and ran at 53.3kbps — and so took nearly three minutes to transmit a 1MB photo (not that anyone was taking 1MB photos back then). Chirp, clearly optimised for reliability rather than speed, runs at 25bps, and would take nearly four days to transmit the same photo. Instead, Chirp sends a 50-bit code that your phone sends to Chirp’s server, which returns the photo over 3G or whatever. So the process is entirely done with the phone’s data connection, except that the last part of the URL is ‘chirped’ through the air. Probably it could be sent via Chirp’s servers instead and nobody would notice for months — I expect some people still believe Bump actually works by bumping the phones together.
It seems to me that this makes Chirp slightly pointless for sharing files, links, and (they really do this) “140-character text messages” between friends. Partly that’s because I already have more ways to send short text messages to my friends’ iPhones than I could possibly ever need, but mostly it’s because I disagree with their chief executive’s claim that “it’s fairly novel to be able to transmit information to anyone who is in earshot”. In fact, humans have a built-in feature for exchanging short communiques with other humans within earshot. Building that into telephones, a device specifically invented to circumvent that limitation, therefore seems like the most monumentally pointless endeavour since the world’s most easily accessible encyclopædia was translated into Latin.
The idea of putting chirps out over tannoy systems or radio broadcasts is a more interesting. Then it’s essentially a QR code made of sound, and there are bound to be uses for that. QR codes, like Blippar and, well, more or less every attempt to make inanimate objects interactive, suffer because for every legitimate use for them there are a thousand stupid ones shoehorned in by PR nitwits. I’ve even seen an information stand with a QR code but no URL — it has machine-readable data but no human-readable data. It’s hard to shake the feeling that it was designed as a tool for the benefit of rebel robots.
The problem with chirps, QR codes, and the like is that there’s almost always a far more efficient way of doing the same thing. The obvious approach to broadcast links as sound would be to read out the URL. If that’s impractical then the correct solution is to come up with a better URL system — long strings of gibberish are rarely ideal. Even if you use sound, there doesn’t seem to be any need for the radio station to change their broadcast so much as to team up with Shazam so the app can directly recognise their station and connect users to whatever content is under discussion. Of course, most users will listen to one or two radio stations at most anyway, so 99% of the time they won’t even use that; they’ll just choose from their favourites list. And then you’re just tweeting links, which incidentally works fine.
But okay, let’s say you’re ‘chirping’ URLs. I can’t decode them: I almost never listen to audio on any device other than my iPhone, which will presumably mute said audio the moment Chirp starts listening for it. The one thing I’d like it to do — pull links out of Pod Delusion reports — is the one thing it can’t do. On the other hand, Downcast’s ‘share via Twitter’ feature lets me send a direct message to @rtm with a link to the show-notes, which accomplishes the same thing without building a whole nother app or running yet another server full of short-coded URLs.
I’m sure there’s a use for Chirp, but I reckon you’d have to have it installed for a couple of years before it came in handy. The BBC rather worryingly suggest that the developers “see a future where you pay for a can of drink with a chirp” which seems like it would make credit-card-cloning scams so easy that there’d be an app for it on Cydia within the week.
As an alternative method of sending URLs over the phone or radio, I wondered a while back about creating a URL shortener that made links memorable rather than short. There’s a memory trick that encodes any six-digit number into a memorable image, by building them out of three pegs from a set of 100. If we could have more choices from smaller pools, we could build a site with long but easy to say, hear and remember URLs — a Bit.ly for the mind. You’d probably need a pictorial keyboard on the homepage to make it usable. I never bothered to make it principally because I don’t think it’d be very useful.
And neither, I fear, is this.