Death of the Phone Number

Nilay Patel says we’re seeing the death of the phone number–and it can’t come too soon.

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.

The piece goes into substantial detail into how Google Voice, Microsoft’s Skype, Apple’s iMessage, and other technologies are already breaking the tyranny and predicts it won’t be long before voice is just as fluid as text.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave says:

    The one thing the phones have over all these other services: everyone has one, and you can call people across providers, ie AT&T users can call Verizon users, etc. etc.

    Until I can contact someone on Google Talk using Facebook chat, or can reach out to someone on AIM from Skype, they’ll never replace the phone.

  2. Brett says:

    What they need to do is go from simply having pre-paid phones (with text and minutes) to having complete pre-paid data plans. You could use those to ditch your phone number and operate all your calls through a VoIP app on your smart phone.

    The only downside is cultural lag. Everything from government forms to job applications still require a phone number, and they usually don’t accept your e-mail address as a complete substitute.

  3. sam says:

    Jeepers, I just put our cellphone numbers on the do not call list. Is that list dinosaurian? Have the telemarketers gotten the word?

  4. Franklin says:

    Until I can contact someone on Google Talk using Facebook chat, or can reach out to someone on AIM from Skype, they’ll never replace the phone.

    Mmmm, instant messaging works pretty much across all the boundaries, doesn’t it? At least it does if you use a universal chat client like Pidgin. Not so for video conferencing, admittedly. I’m not on Facebook so if their crappy chat doesn’t work with MSN/AIM/Google Talk/etc., that’s there own damn fault.

  5. Franklin says:

    their/there/they’re, I need an editor