I had just finished writing this post. Before I read it to edit I spent 5 minutes flipping through TechCrunch and found this…
Crazy coincidence! Nikhyl Singhal‘s post is spot on so give it a read, and be sure to check out my thoughts on the subject below:
A phone number is an amazing thing – a short string of digits can connect you to anyone, anywhere in the world. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how redundant phone numbers have become. It’s reasonable to expect that over the next decade something will replace the phone number as the default means of voice-to-voice connections.
Phone numbers are 130 years old. First seen in Lowell, Massachusetts during an outbreak of measles. Prior to the creation of the phone number people with phones would be connected to a switchboard operator who would route their call based on verbal request. The fear was that if Lowell’s four switch board operators got ill replacements wouldn’t be able to learn the switchboard quick enough to connect calls by name, so names were replaced with numbers.
As telephone networks grew from cities to states to cover the entire country, numbers became the only logical way to keep track of a call’s direction. An area code would route the call to a local network and a string of letters and digits would take the call to its final destination. In the early stages of telephony two or three families would share one line. But as phone usage grew from a privilege of the rich to a one-line per family standard, the phone number quickly became the most important piece of contact information. People began calling each other far more than they sent letters, making the telephone far more essential than the address. People actually used to memorize each other’s phone numbers. I can still remember the phone number of my best friend’s family from elementary school.
Ironically, with the rise of the mobile phone, people no longer needed to memorize numbers. The cellphone’s digital phone book took care of that. So these days I don’t know anyone’s number by heart. Phone numbers are exchanged once. Then people are called by name. When I want to call Jaspar I flip to the J section of my iPhone’s phone book and click on his name. Which makes me wonder, what do I need the number for?
Today over 91% of the American population has a cellphone. This is as good as a one cellphone per person standard. Cellphones are incredibly powerful pieces of technology, so why can’t we identify people are people instead of numbers? New VoIP technologies such as Skype and Google Voice don’t require phone numbers if you are calling within their network. But calling within a single network is restrictive. Not everyone has Google Voice or Skype. Further more not everyone is on Skype or Google Voice at all times. For all intents and purposes everyone has a cellphone and is logged on as long as their cellphone is on.
But the phone number is a vestigial organ of of the cellphone. If cellphones were created today the connections would be powered like social networks. I would add a person like I add a friend on Facebook and from there forward I would be able to call, text and connect with them on the phone.
Speaking of Facebook, with 500 million people worldwide and over 40% penetration in the U.S., the social network is the most likely replacement for the phone number. The Facebook mobile app could easily be modified to power all of our calling. This is a far from a certainty. What is certain is that phone numbers only exist because of their amazing market penetration from the days when they were useful. They have no other utility in a one cellphone per person world. It’s crazy to think that my kids will never encounter a phone number.
There is a huge market opportunity here for the person who can figure out how to profit from billions of useless Yellow Page phone books.