The Phone number is alive
Martin Weigert, who’s a writer on the German tech blog netzwertig.com, proclaimed on his personal, English-language blog: “The Phone number is dead.” The article made me think quite a bit about his statement, so I decided to write a reply and explain why I disagree with it - at least for now.
His proclamation comes from the fact that he stayed in Japan for three months, put a Data-only SIM in his smartphone and didn’t miss a thing, since “99 percent of [his] digital communication is done via email & messaging anyway”. While this might be true for him, I think nothing can replace a good old voice call. Speaking is so much faster than typing texts and mails and some points, especially when emotions play a role, come across much better if you can listen to the tone of the voice of your conversational partner. Of course voice calls can be made without phone numbers, for example through VoIP software such as Skype, however I think on a mobile network they are not yet a satisfying replacement in terms of call quality and reliability. The regular “dialer app” is still an important part of a smartphone.
Martin also says that “being not in the need of a phone number is the final liberation of customers from the dependency of their telecommunication operators”. That is true if we replace phone numbers with EMail addresses, XMPP identifiers or SIP URIs. However if we use messaging tools such as Twitter DMs, Facebook chat, Moped, or App.net channels, we put ourselves in the walled garden of that particular network and all our friends have to use the same software or we have to install and sign up for dozens of these networks. Phone numbers are at least portable between carriers within the same geographical location and you can call any number from any carrier. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should completely stay away from walled gardens, because they are often the best solution for a certain situation and they “just work”, however I wouldn’t want to rely exclusively on them at and least have one widely accepted federated identifier with me. And that is the traditional phone number.
We all have a legacy of phone numbers in our phones and we still exchange them with new acquintances. But what’s maybe even more important than this is that phone numbers are now the preferred means of signup for mobile apps and discovery of contacts, not just for over-the-top messaging apps like yuilop, WhatsApp or Viber, but also other network-based apps such as Kicksend or Instabridge. These apps basically replace email addresses, which are typically required to sign up for services in a desktop browser, with phone numbers, and import contacts from our phone address books instead of our email accounts.
In my opinion and with some irony, it will be those latest and shiniest mobile apps that will ensure the phone number stays with us as a personal identifier for a long time to come. Maybe longer than EMail.