The End of the Phone Number?

Published July 06, 2018 by Alyssa Mazzina

It’s two years since Facebook’s VP of Messaging Products, David Marcus, predicted the end of the phone number. So, how far along that road are we? Or is there life in the phone number yet?

Wait? The phone number is endangered?

If you were born before the 90s, the idea that anyone would stop using phone numbers might seem absurd. But think about how we make most calls today: you look up a name in your cellphone’s address book and click “Call.” The number is an implementation detail.

And more and more of our communication is taking place away from the traditional telecoms network. WhatsApp, for example, is already bigger than SMS. WhatsApp, Telegram, and WeChat all offer voice calling without relying on the public switched telephone network.

Perhaps, then, it’s understandable that some see the phone number as a historical artifact; an anachronism that’s ready for retirement.

So, why are phone numbers used in those same messaging tools as the canonical user identity?

Phone numbers tell a story

Telephone numbers have been with us for almost as long as the telephone itself. That gives the telephone number a place in our shared culture that makes it hard to shift.

While cellphones have blurred the lines, your phone number tells a story about where you’re from or your type of business. Pretty much everyone in North America knows that you’re paying for the call if you have a 1-800 number or that you’re in New York if your number starts with 212.

Nexmo’s Number Insight API takes that a step further and can tell you the network, connection type, location, and more for a given number. Such information can help with fraud detection and knowing your customer.

The point is that a cultural and technical inertia has built up around phone numbers. Whatever replaces the phone number doesn’t just have to be a bit better—it has to be revolutionary.

Not convinced? Take a look at the shift from IPv4 to IPv6 addressing on the internet. If that’s new to you, then here’s the short version: every device on the internet needs a numeric address much like a phone number and, even though the IPv4 numbers have run out, internet providers and device manufacturers are still lagging when it comes to implementing IPv6 and its ability to provide an address to 340 trillion trillion trillion devices.

So, what could be a compelling reason for ditching phone numbers?

Why would we replace phone numbers?

Arguably, phone numbers are hard to remember, especially now that we rarely dial them manually.

They’re also anonymous: for all that they tell a story, there’s nothing in a phone number to say who it belongs to. As a form of ID, they’re at best a cipher that relies on additional knowledge.

Perhaps most frustratingly for some, phone numbers are controlled centrally and usually by a government agency, such as the FCC for the North American Numbering Plan or Ofcom in the UK.

And yet despite phone number ranges being centrally issued, caller-ID spoofing and spam calls may make some people feel more comfortable in a true walled garden.

What could replace phone numbers?

If not phone numbers, then what?

Phone numbers are universal. You can pick up pretty much any phone and, with the correct international dialing code, call any other phone on the planet. The only other identifier that comes close is the email address.

But this is where we see why some would call for an end to phone numbers. Email addresses are, by their very text, tied to a particular provider. We’ve largely got phone number portability sorted, in most markets. Email portability, not so much.

Any replacement for phone numbers is more than likely to be proprietary to one provider or another. And if your identity is tied to a particular messaging platform then you, too, are tied to that platform.

Sure, there could be a benign effort to create an industry-wide, platform-agnostic identity system, and OpenID shows both that such cooperation is possible and that a major provider will go their own way when it suits them. However, it’s not immediately obvious that such an effort would be transformationally better than the humble phone number.

Two years on and phone numbers are still here

We’re right in the middle of a huge change in customer communication. Today, our ongoing conversation with customers takes place across multiple channels and savvy organizations are working with platforms such as Nexmo to stitch together those channels into one 360-degree view.

Despite all that change, the phone number is well understood, universally available, and not at the whim of one platform or another. In fact, even with in-app calling, chatbots, self-service, and instant messaging, traditional phone continues to be a core channel for almost any customer-oriented company.

The truth is, phone numbers are imperfect but we’ve had 127 years to deal with their shortcomings. For tens of thousands of years, humans lived without them and, no doubt, something better will one day replace them. But that something better is not yet here.

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