Remember back in the day when most people equated AOL with the “Internet”. For many AOL was the Internet. Very few people would venture out of the walled garden of AOL. But in time the web browser began to take hold. The Internet, or more appropriately the World Wide Web, took off. At first it was complicated. Remember explaining what http:// meant or when a website wouldn’t load unless you include ‘www.’ in the URL. The Web became more diverse but also more complicated once we ventured outside the walled gardens. Exposing the plumbing a bit allowed for consumers to do cool things like setup home networks, set web and FTP servers at home, and much more if you had a little know how of the ways networks and the Internet worked.
Flash forward to today and though the Internet is as strong and as vibrant as ever, the World Wide Web is giving way to smartphone apps and browser extensions. The Internet is being backdoored into Microsoft Office without the need to open a proper web browser. People used to setup personal websites to market themselves but now you develop a mobile app (or very least utilize a service that gives you a presence in the mobile space). That’s not to say the WWW is dead, it’s just becoming a minor player on the larger Internet.
So how does this related to future of mobile phones? The answer lies in the question. The concept of a ‘phone’ is what’s killing us. We have to kill the term. Communicator is a obvious choice to replace the arcane term the conjures up images of ladies at switchboards pulling wires here to there. Perhaps, though the term ‘phone’ simply evolves beyond its simple telephony roots. Where am I going with this? Most of us have given up our landline. We solely rely on a cell phone as our main communication device for everything. But the reality is in the United States companies like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint suck. They treat customers like criminals, are slow (if ever) to release softwares for Android devices, and the collude to prevent any true competition. Companies such as Apple and Google (and their many Android partners) know this. And they know their profitability relies on getting rid of these middle men because if there is one thing Apple and Google hate it’s middle men. These two companies are the great disintermediaries of our time (among others of course). So how is Google specifically going to make an end run around the mobile cellular phone service providers? Short term, it’s apps. Long term Google and Apple may have to buy AT&T and Verizon to finally beat them into submission of the fact they should just be large, dump digital pipes. Google makes more money when there are more people on the Internet. Apple gives away the services/apps to get you to buy hardware. And because smartphone adoption has plateaued in the United States, a radical change to the entire ecosystem (e.g. killing the old way) is the only thing left get the remaining holdouts. This is actually a brilliant solution because the holdouts tend to be older and thus time takes care of all dinosaurs. It also, jumpstarts the creation of the digital environment that the ‘early adopters’ (being younger generations) really want for long term but can’t have because the entrenched business interests of Verizon and AT&T won’t allow it. I believe Google knows this best. I think even T-Mobile and Sprint realize it as they are returning to the unlimited data plans.
I submit to you that the very concept of a “phone number” will not survive our lifetime. Phone numbers are like prisoner identification numbers, great for administrative tracking, not relatable for human beings. We see it with two Google products, Google Voice and Google Hangouts. Voice is a traditional “telephone number”- centered idea that speaks to dinosaurs (dinosaurs of course being anyone over 25 years of age!) You signed up for a phone number and you could port it from device to device and also got some web 2.0 jazzy services. It hasn’t really been updated since it launched in 2009. Enter Google Hangouts that has been the star feature of Google+. It is constantly getting better. And it crosses the desktop and the smartphone. Obviously Google+ and Hangouts work best when those you contact also have Google+ and Hangouts. But for the dinosaurs you can simply manually add their contact info. But for those friends who also use the service you will never have to thing about how to contact them ever again. In fact, you won’t have any choice. The receiver will get to decide if and how they are alerted to your desire to communicate. No longer need to remember the phone number, email address or IM chat handle. Simply click on the friend in your ‘buddy list’ (if they are not hiding) and select your desired mode of communication: text-based, voice, or video) and if the receiving party agrees: Viola, you’re connected. The receiver can also recommend an alternative method, say voice call vice a video chat if they still aren’t out of their Superman pajamas. Mark my words, Google Hangouts and the eventual consolidation of Google Voice into Hangouts marks the beginning of the end for traditional telephony paradigms.
In short, just as we are hiding the plumbing of the Internet again by replacing the web browser with apps, so too are hiding the plumbing of communication – text, voice, video. And we’re making it more people-centric vice technology dependent. And for the millennial generation that is key. Who wants a 10-digit phone number that has no meaning when you can simply be known by whatever email or user name you desire? Plus they aren’t making phone calls, hell even the dinosaurs aren’t really even making PHONE calls.