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February 12, 2014

I built the “so-and-so is typing” feature in chat

NEW YORK — How do you feel about the typing indicator - "David is typing" - that appears on your buddy's screen while you're composing a message in chat? Does it make you feel self-conscious about how long you're taking to write a message? Do you feel paranoid when your friend appears to be typing for ages but the message you finally receive is only "ha ha"? Do you hate knowing that your "friend" is not typing anything and must be multitasking on something else? Do you hate it when you are multitasking and your erstwhile best friend keeps sending messages like "Are you still there? What are you doing? Do you still like me? Have I fallen in your heart?"

If so, you have me to blame, because I was one of the people who invented it. But I can explain everything.

The first professional software project I worked on was Microsoft's instant messenger client, saddled with the unwieldy name "MSN Messenger Service" - chosen by the same marketing experts that gave us Zune, Microsoft Bob, and .NET My Services. It shipped back in 1999 after a few years of development. During that time one of the issues that the team discussed was Gee, wouldn't it be nice to know whether the other person is responding, or waiting for you to say something?

The typing indicator tells you that something is going on, but leaves you to wonder what it is.

Back then, chatting in real time via text was for most people a very new thing. A good chunk of communication is knowing when it is and isn't your turn to speak (another chunk is vocal nuance, which is partly addressed by emoticons); on a line where only one person can speak at a time like a walkie-talkie, you really do have to say "over" to make sure your partner doesn't miss anything. But latent full-duplex, where people can talk at the same time but transmission is delayed until you, say, hit Enter, like instant messaging, has its own problems. If your chat partner's gone silent, it might be hard to know whether she was typing some huge message or if she was waiting for you to say something. We couldn't enforce any particular etiquette among users, hence the typing indicator.

 

 

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