The Future of Phone Numbers

my personal home batphone

It’s a miracle you clicked on this blog post. Phone numbers are boring. And most of us just want to ditch them. But they’re about to get a whole lot more interesting and here’s why–

Your number is likely the worst feature on your phone when it comes to its utility–yes, it’s a universally accessible line to you so likely your best choice for direct communication but most of the time, it’s a really, really dumb tool.

Unscheduled phone calls are often interruptions, persistent texts at the wrong place or time from the wrong person is the millennial version of ‘death by a thousand papercuts.’ Your ringer is either on or off, there’s no built-in nuance for contacts or time of day.

Personal care of one’s phone number (dividing contacts into different numbers, setting up VIP lists on devices) is the modern day equivalent of flossing. Sure, it’s good for you and could save a lot of hassle down the road–but who has the time?

Also-holy shit these things are insecure. Like really really really bad.

Phone numbers are out dated, it’s a surprise we (Americans) still rely on them. I’m going to explore why they’re so terrible–and how they’re about to change rapidly to a whole new (pretty incredible) beast.

Imagine a world where we ditched phone numbers. Took away all inbox-based communication on our phone that went through our 10-digit identity. Why haven’t we done that yet? Why are phone numbers so terrible?

I blame the iPhone. With the introduction of the AppStore, Apple radically expanded the scope of inbox-based communication–now, I have messages coming to my phone via my Instagram, Twitter, Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal apps (in addition to my [Listen] phone number). Most people creating social software focused (duh!) on how best to communicate inside of their own app. This all happened fast and due to that speed, no one really stopped to think about how all these different channels to our home screen work together.

When we’re getting ten messages on ten different platforms within ten minutes–how do we prioritize that information? Most expected that their phone number was going to become one silo of their many communication channels but that expectation doesn’t consider how much more powerful a phone number is as a notification system than apps. You can’t lay a push notification next to a full-screen takeover and consider them even.

As phones changed in context and scope for consumers, telephony sat idle. (This is so crazy to me!!!!!!!!) I’ve talked with some people who blamed it on porting laws–giving users ability to switch carriers at any time made carriers uninterested in innovating on numbers. I think they just didn’t have any reason to innovate. carrier figured lock-in contracts to pay off new phones, etc was fine enough of a strategy for getting and keeping customers. Then they sat back and let device makers set up how their number behaves. This stagnancy has been terrible for consumers.

But it’s worked for carriers! So why care? Traditionally, people have stayed with their carrier for years, postpaid churn rates hover around 1%.

This is all about to change, and phones numbers are about to have the ability to get interesting, mostly because of this:

Phone Numbers + Data *~ you can’t have one with the other~*

Ok, ok. You can technically have a phone number without data (I do right now on my iPhone! Using Listen instead)–but SIM cards are expected to be connected to a phone number. For example, iMessage on an iPhone will only work through a user’s SIM-card connected number. It’s a security function by Apple but it might just be a relic from the days when Apple would only work on ATT.

So, number+data go together because that’s how consumers and device makers expect a phone plan to be packaged. This is silly but ultimately it is what allows phone numbers to become pretty amazing tools. I dive in more on that later.

Carriers have traditionally marketed their plans based on the strength of their data offering:

  • coverage / reliability
  • speed
  • price

However, the true customer lock-in for carriers has been the structure of their phone plans. Family plans, contracts, and newer programs like Verizon Edge keep people stuck with their carrier. There’s a lack of clarity around how one can move between providers and different price points. I’ve spoken to dozens of people over the past year about their phone plans and most:

  • don’t know if they can switch (unsure if still on contract or paying off phone)
  • have no idea if they’re paying above or below market rate
  • think ‘hassle’ of switching carriers is likely too much of a pain in the neck to bother
  • have no idea how their service stacks up to other carriers re: data coverage/speed/reliability

You’re probably paying too much for your phone plan, it’s fairly simple to switch, family plans are a racket unless if you’re actually still a nuclear family who are all living in the same house. I’ve talked to adult people who are on the same plan with two divorced parents and others who are married but still on a plan with their parents instead of their spouse because it seems like too much of a pain to switch and a lot of people who were on five+ family plans and fighting over who used all the data. Often people don’t realize that they could be saving a bunch money if they switched to more sensible plan. It’s easy and you’ll save a bunch of money. Do it.

So, what gets people to switch carriers?

T-Mobile has practically doubled its market share since introducing their unlimited “Uncarrier” plan a few years ago. It came to market about $50 under average unlimited plans and at a time where customers on big carriers only had unlimited if they were ‘grandfathered’ in, proving that people will respond to price cuts when those cuts are significant (tens of dollars, not dollars).

It also got a lot of people experiencing something for the first time in years–switching carriers. Many hadn’t done so since before it was possible to switch and keep one’s numbers. People are seeing that it’s easy to switch. That experience makes them likelier to switch carriers sooner in the future. And carriers are know it. Postpaid churn rates are rising–not dramatically but it’s happening.

About a month ago, we saw Verizon, ATT, and Sprint sound the alarm with their own unlimited price plans. This is the beginning of something huge for consumers. When data prices drop so low that price becomes immaterial between plans–what’s next for carriers to tout?

I believe:

  • data is good enough everywhere on all carriers that it is no longer a major selling point for customer unless if you’re specifically in a pocket that loses service from X telecom (which is a real and very annoying problem for many less-populated areas in America)
  • data is fast enough across all carriers that it is no longer a major selling point
  • data is about to be cheap enough that it is no longer a major selling point

Most of all:

  • the ‘price wars’ will get more people exposed to porting numbers between carriers and churn rates of carriers will continue to rise
  • postpaid churn rates’ upward momentum will be exponential (more below in MVNO section)
  • churn rates rising w/ nowhere to go on price or speed means that carriers will have to innovate on other components

So, if my beliefs are true, what’s left?

The Resurrection of MVNOs

More like MVNLOL am i rite (kill me now). It’s worth noting that in this section, I’m mostly talking about MVNOs built as offshoots of larger corporations–not dedicated demographic-based ones like Cricket, Boost that are basically just marketing wrapper for big carriers.

(def. MVNO–mobile virtual network operator, basically a carrier that is built on top of a big telecom’s infrastructure. For ex; Twilio Wireless is actually fulfilled by T-Mobile, just white labeled)

Remember ESPN’s mobile plan? Or Disney’s? Brands believed wrapping their content into phone services was the future. This was the world before apps: each service thought they could win as the one-off content provider for the phone. ESPN Mobile had its own device, with push notifications built in for scores, important updates, etc. Imagine if your entire phone was just Twitter app + phone service. That’s the future expected by these companies who took a stab at MVNO. And part of the reason why MVNOs are so looked down on now–when they’re a vanity project for content, they fail.

MVNOs are about to become popular again. And this time they‘ll succeed. Here’s why:

Large companies are again approaching MVNOs. Above I said that due to rising churn rates and nowhere significant to go on price or speed, carriers will need to innovate on data and their features in order to differentiate. Here’s how Project Fi (Google) and Comcast are doing that:

  • They’re pairing their access to WiFi networks with devices to innovate on data/service/price–by using WiFi where available, cost is kept fairly low (probably much more so for urban areas)
  • Project Fi works internationally, transitioning between US + serviced countries seamlessly and without extra cost

One neg for Project Fi is that it only works with certain Android phones (Nexus, Pixel) since they had to build-in device component to auto-connect to their networks. Comcast is likely to be similar (hasn’t launched yet).

I don’t believe the ‘pay-as-you-go versus postpaid’ argument is important in these examples because cost is already low and data usage is too much of an enigma with the auto-connect to WiFi for pay-as-you-go to be really effective for user in action.

None of these points are powerful enough that I think those MVNO will become a home run. Here’s where the home run MVNO comes from:

About a year ago, Twilio announced Twilio Wireless. I think the future of phone numbers and data could be created on that platform. Basically, they want to do for data what they did for voice and text; make it readily accessible to even novice developers. What do we get when kiddos and idiots like me can suddenly hack on an otherwise stodgy, complicated platform?

Imagine, a startup not trying to wrap in any content or already-established corporate services (looking at you forcing Hangouts onto me, Project Fi). What would a company do if they were focused only on making the best data service provider for you? It’s important that they recognize:

  • Your data plan shouldn’t mean only mobile data for one device (Project Fi knows this; offering free data SIM cards connected to your account to stick wherever–very useful if traveling abroad w/ someone who isn’t on Fi and could be more useful in future for reasons I get into below). I believe Comcast also recognizes this–in fact I believe it won’t be so surprising to me if three-five years from now lots of us only have data plans and no longer are paying for home WiFi–probably one of the reasons they decided to dip into MVNO game.
  • Phone number features can be used as a way to differentiate from competitors. Everyone is falling over each other to copy and get to lowest data price possible. But if one’s phone number could start to stand out and lock-in as if a network (think iMessage v Messages)–baby, we’ve got something great.
  • Clarity around price and porting could make customers feel secure and actually inspire loyalty (instead of scaring them into it)
  • Make that data secure, encrypt where you can, don’t be horrible. Don’t sell customer browsing data
  • Introduction of many different competitors to the mobile data platform will help drive the exponential rise of carrier’s churn rate (smaller companies creating more clarity and handholding to leaving / joining new carrier process; better onboarding and education)

So, the future is all data everywhere for everyone real cheap and now, finally, we’re at a point where we get to look at the transformation phone numbers are about to make.

I think Jeff Lawson (CEO, Twilio) said it best, in his letter to shareholders:

Think about it: In the fictional future, Star Trek communicators are perfectly useful — Captain Picard is never interrupted during a Red Alert by a tele-marketer. The dry cleaner never interrupts a Holodeck session to let him know his Starfleet uniform is ready to be picked up; yet when the Borg are approaching at warp speed, you better believe that contextually meaningful and relevant communication gets through with urgency. You’ll receive every communication that’s relevant to an important task at the right time, with context embedded within the communication. That’s because communication will be a function of that task, app or workflow — not a standalone activity…

Hot, Sexy, Cool Telephony (finally!)

Or more like, extensible–flexible–smart–simple but, hey, you know how hard it is to get people to care about phone numbers.

No matter what, your SIM card (for the foreseeable future) is going to come with a phone number. Let’s make that phone number work well. When we think of how one’s number + data can interplay–things get really interesting.

First, let’s take care of the insecurity issue as best we can. Going back to iMessage v Messages example–we can’t control for security with messages or calls that terminate at a different carrier. But, we can encrypt for Listen-to-Listen users.

Next, let’s make the numbers extensible. Let’s have a way for people to control which device rings when or let’s have the logic to do that easily for our customers and let’s also provide them with those devices so they can built a communication channel according to their preferences.

I did that with my Listen BatPhone (for at-home deliveries) and my Magic Mirror Listen module (for high-priority messages when my phone is off). Being able to have my phone tucked away while at home without any anxiety over whether I’m missing something important is a luxury. Phone calls shouldn’t be just ‘full screen’ or ‘blocked’–I should be able to say, “when I walk into my office, ring my office phone instead of my cell phone” or, “make my Jewelbot blink if I get a text from this person,” and this is all accessible through one number. One number can handle this all–spinning off several numbers to handle several scenarios/contacts is insane to me.And coupled with one’s data plan, all the devices can be SIM-enabled

You should be able to auth into your phone number, you should be able to share data from it and switch feature sets. I think of where phone numbers have to go similar to where MVNOs failed–those that focused on creating single ‘super app’ like ESPN Mobile missed that the boat was going towards iPhone AppStore and that soon one would have a million different ESPN Mobile-like systems running on their phone. Your phone number is currently the equivalent of a ‘super app’ on your phone–only behaving in one defined way for texts and calls. But I believe, your number should have a wide range of behaviors and feature sets to choose from based on the device and owner. Pairing that with the ability to drop SIM cards also tied to one’s data plan into your home and office devices could get pretty crazy. ‘Allow incoming phone calls to be displayed on my television if from X high-priority contact + I’m not currently on my phone,’ or a swipe left to display a photo taken while you’re walking through NYC to your significant other’s frame unless they’re not home–then fallback to a text (provided they’re also using Listen and thus living with synchronized devices–see, a network lock-in!).

Phone numbers should mean, ‘get X to this person,’ instead of, ‘ping their one device’ and phone numbers should know enough about your importance to your contact and how your contact wants to be notified based on that importance. This should be done simply, mindlessly–users shouldn’t have complicated groups or rules for contacts.

Inbox-based communication like email benefited from inheriting a sense of asynchrony since at its origin expectation was that people would ‘check’ their email not constantly be receiving it on their phone. Text didn’t get the same advantage. Texting via your phone number is simultaneously inbox-based AND synchronous–especially with the rise of ‘invisible apps–which is painful as hell.

Your number should understand, “silence all calls and texts from this person but still display them for me in a separate folder” and “allow this person to choose to blink the lights in my house if they text me” and “send this message to this person WITHOUT sending them a notification.” We want to make communication better by giving both sides more control over notification system for texts and calls. They should sync with your calendar and react logically to context / time of day for you.

313.492.4177 is my only number and it handles everything perfectly for me. I could paint that number on my naked chest and walk around Times Square and still have a completely capable, unsullied phone number. It’s a shame how little control we’ve had over notifications and our phone’s inbox in the past. I’m happy to say we’re able to finally give you that capability. And we’re working on the rest of it.

Anyways, if you agree or disagree, feel free to let me know. I can’t believe you read all this. Thank you.