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iMessage, Skype, Google Voice, and the death of the phone number

iMessage, Skype, Google Voice, and the death of the phone number

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I hate phone numbers. They're a relic of an outmoded system that both wireless and wireline carriers use to keep people trapped on their services -- a false technological prison built of nothing but laziness and hostility to consumers. In fact, I can't think of a single telecom service that is as restrictive as the phone number: email can be accessed from any device, Skype makes apps for nearly every platform, IM works across any number of clients, there are web-based messaging solutions that transcend platforms entirely -- the list goes on. We expect modern telecom services to be universal, cheap, and easily-accessible, and those that aren't tend to be immediate failures. Ask Cisco how Umi went for them sometime.

Yet the phone number remains stubbornly fixed with a single carrier and single device, even as consumers begin to move every other aspect of their lives to the cloud. And the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems: Why can't I open a desktop app and use my wireless minutes to make VoIP calls? Why can't I check and respond to my text messages online? Why can't I pick up any phone from any carrier, enter my phone service information, and be on my way, just as with email or IM or Skype? Why are we still pretending that phone service is at all different from any other type of data? The answer to almost all of these questions is carrier lock-in -- your phone number is a set of handcuffs that prevents you from easily jumping ship, and they know it.

Happily, it seems like the industry is beginning to fight back. No platform provider wants to be limited by something as archaic and stupid as the phone number, and Apple, Google, and Microsoft have each taken serious steps towards eliminating phone number as we know it. What's interesting is that each company has taken a dramatically different approach, with different tradeoffs along the way -- let's take a look.

Google is taking arguably the strangest path -- Google Voice started life as a hack on top of the traditional phone system, and it remains firmly tied to the complexities of that system to this day. (Merely signing up for an account requires you to specify an area code, of all things.) However, building on top of phone system has allowed Google to make rapid advances against 10-digit tyranny: none of your contacts have to use alternate services to reach you, you can set up nearly any Android phone to seamlessly use your Google Voice number as its primary line without dealing with your carrier, and you can integrate landlines and non-Android phones into the system without too much hassle.

And Google's now beginning to take the next steps: you can make and receive VoIP phone calls from your Google Voice number using Google Talk on the desktop, Google Talk on Android 2.3.4 offers voice and video calling, and the company just rolled out tight integration with Sprint that replaces the carrier's voice services with Google's offering. Taken together, these are no small moves: a Google Voice user on Sprint can make and receive phone calls using their Sprint number from the desktop without using their minutes, a major first in the industry. But all of these advances are still intimately tied to the phone system and phone numbers -- and while Google's managed to abstract the phone number away from the device by building on top of the existing system, none of its services are completely functional unless you're paying a carrier for a voice plan. Google might well be able to transition its service away from the requirement eventually, but Microsoft and Apple are are trying different tactics entirely.

Microsoft's move is the easiest to figure out: Redmond just spent $8.5b to acquire Skype, the single biggest name in all of VoIP. Skype offers a number of products and services, and you can use it nearly any way you want: for text-only chats, for desktop-only voice calls, as a replacement for a standard phone using SkypeOut, and on mobile using the various Skype apps. In many ways, Skype offers Microsoft a shortcut to the ultimate goal: you can already turn on nearly any device, from a smartphone to a laptop to an increasing number of smart TVs, enter your Skype credentials, and be instantly available. The sheer number of people with Skype accounts -- somewhere between 560 and 700 million -- means that saying "just call my Skype" might not sound so crazy anymore, especially if you move in younger or techier circles. And Microsoft has a huge opportunity to integrate Skype directly into the Xbox 360 and Kinect -- to say nothing of Windows Phone 7, which conspicuously lacks a Skype app right now. Managed correctly, Microsoft has the opportunity to turn Skype into a dominant and unified messaging platform that usurps the phone system, texting, video chat, and IM in one fell swoop.

All of this is pure conjecture, of course -- Microsoft hasn't even articulated a complete strategy for Skype yet, and Redmond doesn't have a stellar track record when it comes to executing to a platform's full potential. And let's not forget that Skype is a proprietary solution -- the phone number might be crufty and restrictive, but you can call generally any phone on any service anywhere in the world. Will Microsoft allow Skype to interoperate with other VoIP services? That's a big question that could hold Skype back from fully succeeding.

Apple seems to charting its own multi-pronged course. The company just unveiled iMessage at WWDC, a new free messaging system for iOS that offers several major advantages over SMS. Messages appear on all iOS 5 devices, offer delivery and read receipts, and you can see when a contact is replying to you with a typing indicator in the chat window. Most interestingly, the system is invisibly built into the iOS 5 messaging app: text a friend using Android and you'll use SMS, but hit up another iOS 5-toting buddy and you'll seamlessly swap to iMessage with only a new blue text bubble signifying the transport switch. That's insidiously clever -- if all the people you text with are iOS 5 users, you can turn off your SMS plan entirely and not miss a beat. And iMessage works on the iPod touch and iPad as well, which means you can ditch your phone number entirely and still use the service. Not bad -- but what about voice?

FaceTime feels like a silent killer when it comes to voice. It's out there, and people use it, but because it's WiFi-only and video-only, it's somewhat under the radar. But think about it: Apple's built a peer-to-peer calling system that allows you to call multiple devices using just an email address, with no central service or account management to speak of. All the company has to do is roll out updates that enable voice-only calls and support for calls on 3G and 4G networks, and millions of iPhone 4 users will stop using their minutes when they call each other. What's more, FaceTime is built on open protocols like XMPP and SIP, and Apple's promised to eventually open the standard to others, meaning that multiple apps and devices could someday support FaceTime calling. All you'd have to do on a new device is enter your email address, say you're willing to accept FaceTime calls, and you'd be all set. If Apple plays it correctly, iOS 5 users will be able to call and text each using only data by this time next year, without regard for phone numbers at all. Add in some iChat integration on the desktop and, well, you've got the dream.

Unfortunately, it's been a year since Apple promised to open FaceTime and there's been nary a peep on the subject since. Even more ominously, iMessage also appears to be built on the iOS XMPP architecture and Apple didn't say a word about FaceTime at WWDC, so there's sad chance the company is gunning for BBM-style messaging platform lock-in -- which would definitely turn this little dream into a nightmare. Let's hope Cupertino sees the bigger possibilities here and does the right thing.

So that's the landscape: Google's hacking the existing telephone system, Microsoft's betting on the upstart proprietary network, and Apple appears to be quietly trying to pull the rug out from everyone. But it's clear that all three are committed to the idea of voice calling and texting as just another type of data stream to be managed and accessed across multiple devices, and I can't imagine they won't succeed in pulling the industry along with them. What's funny is that the carriers are themselves trying to move voice traffic to IP internally -- Verizon wants to do voice over LTE as soon as 2012 -- but by the time they get there, it could be too late: the phone number may well have taken its place alongside its true contemporaries like the punchcard and rotary dial. It's about time.