Say 'good-bye' to phone numbers, 'hello' to IM names.

by Guy Kewney | posted on 20 July 2004

Ah, the excitement! A new "area code" for London phones! Except it isn't exciting at all. To read the local press, you'd never guess, though. Behind the hype reality is that it's the final step in a bumbling set of incompetent decisions, echoed around the world, as telcos fail to realise that phone numbers are obsolete.

Guy Kewney

Obsolete? Phone numbers?

Well, yes. OK, the dead body is going to twitch for a while. But think about instant messengers.

Right now, I'm online as hunkymouse@hotmail.com (no, it's not brave of me to reveal that; nothing could possibly make the spam on that account any worse!) and as a result, my MSN Messenger shows me online. The interesting thing, I think, is that it's my phone that sends and receives these messages.

But Microsoft's message service isn't the one I use. Increasingly, my instant texts go through a telco called Skype. And, as you may have heard, Skype lets you talk too.

The thing about Skype is that it doesn't care what my IP address is. I connect to people by name. They may be at their home PC, or they may have logged on at work, or they may be at an Internet Cafe or a Wi-Fi hotspot in a hotel in Barcelona or Bethlehem or Buenos Aires. What matters is that they log in, and their name pops up on my radar.

Where does the phone number come in?

Right now, OK, there is a phone number component. Secretly, Skype is testing its new "Skype Out" PSTN (public switched telephone network)gateway. Feed money into the Skype tank, and the thing will call world phone numbers - I've been testing it, and it works just fine. To be candid, the price is astonishingly competitive. If they stick to the beta pricing, they'll completely wipe the floor with any number of SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) phone gateway operators and cut-price phone providers. I got off a quarter-hour call to Paris, peak time, and found that it had cost me all of six Euro-cents.

But that's hugely expensive compared to Skype-to-Skype calls! And when Skype appears on PDA phones, it will be perfectly pointless having a phone with a phone number.

For some time, my little consulting firm has been trying to sell mobile phone operators the idea that they should exploit the phone number database before it becomes worthless. My suggestion to them is simple:

"Set up Bluetooth access points in offices and let customers place calls over the Internet." Yes, this would lose them some revenue. But in fact, most calls from mobile phone users would be to PSTN numbers; and a fee could be charged.

My idea was that if this did lose them some revenue, it would be countered by the number of masts they didn't have to erect to cope with increasing phone traffic; and of course, it would have had the side-effect of extending the useful life of the phone number system - possibly by several years.

The fuss in London is because we have traditionally had a London area code, and it was turned into a class system. Inner London got one code, 020-7 and Greater London got another, 020-8. It was quite important for businesses to have an inner code. But that has faded, leaving only the shadow of the class code, and now, a new code -020 3 - and it has generated so much excitement you would be forgiven for thinking London had been nominated as the next Olympic venue.

Instead, what is actually happening is no more important than hiring a few extra chairs for the funeral service. Phone numbers will die, as mobile users become mobile in all sectors of the Internet business; this is just a wake for the first victim.

This is an archive version of the article which appeared on eWeek.com last week.

Technorati tags:   
You can discuss this article on our discussion board.