A Long, Slow Spiral

In my recent post regarding Google Voice and life integration, one of the main points that I may have failed to mention explicitly is the purpose of all this stuff: to live better, to be able to connect with the people who matter to you seamlessly, without stuff getting in the way.

As I say again and again, technology is designed to help us be better people, live better, feel more human. When people become frustrated with technology, it’s because what they’re dealing with isn’t good technology, it has failed. Thankfully, we’re getting to the point that we’re finally able to create good technology. Then, I ran across this article regarding the integration of T-Mobile’s Bobsled service into Facebook. Awesome stuff.

In case you missed it, the Facebook component is simply a basic VoIP service that lets you make free voice calls to any of your Facebook friends, and it now boasts a redesigned interface that promises to “more clearly differentiate it from a Facebook owned service.”

GigaOM has a great explanation of the whole thing.

Here’s how the new product works: After downloading and installing Bobsled for Facebook on a Windows or Mac PC, the software adds a phone icon next each friend in your Facebook Chat window. Tap the phone icon, and a free voice call is initiated, even if the call recipient hasn’t installed the Bobsled application yet.

Further:

Aside from one-touch calling, the service also supports voice mails in case the personal you’re calling isn’t available or doesn’t pick up. I ran a quick, early test with Mike Wolf, one of my GigaOM colleagues, and the sound quality wasn’t bad. More importantly, I didn’t have to worry about what phone number to dial.

This is it, folks, this is where we start to see the death of the phone number. If you read the above article, you see how powerful this technology really is. Now that Skype (and, concurrently, Microsoft) and T-Mobile are throwing their weight behind VoIP for everyone, we’re going to see a radical shift in the way people communicate. Voice may once again rise in popularity (I’ll only bite if people understand that a five minute conversation is an eternity to me).

We’re changing rapidly, and this is a beautiful thing, but the venerable Phone Number is staring death in the face now. It’s been a long time coming, but I believe the next ten years (even five, possibly) will see the functional demise of the phone number as the most widely identifiable and understood method of communication. As these technologies evolve and improve, we’re going to see even more features begin to emerge that will enable us to lead better lives and communicate even more efficiently. I, for one, am still looking forward to the collective human consciousness that we’ll all be tapped into one day. For those of you who have heard my theory, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched anymore, does it?

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The Fourth Dimension…er…Generation

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One of my recent blog posts detailed the transition from a carrier-centric model of communicating to a user-centric model. This transition has been, for many people, difficult to understand and/or accomplish due to the ingrained carrier model that so many people are programmed to know. There are so many other ways to communicate, and people who embrace rapidly evolving technology will find themselves on the forefront of a new paradigm of that communication. It’s ridiculous that, in our world of super fast mobile broadband, we still pay carriers ridiculous fees for “minutes” that many of us never use.

The thing is, carriers know this. Carriers know that the future of communication looks more like what I’m doing on my own right now, and not like what they’re trying to push on everyone in American with their advertising wars. Sure, iPhones are great, but when your carrier is cutting your neck and hanging you upside-down over a bucket just so you can use the latest and greatest phone, you’ve got a problem. Phones should not have a “privilege tax” associated with them just because they can run apps.

In a recent discussion with a family member, the topic of “outrageous” pricing for data plans was mentioned. The family member in question pays around $40-50 monthly for a regional voice plan that includes far more minutes than he will ever use (obviously long-distance calls are extra). Up until recently, he did not have any means of communicating via SMS, and added on a $5/month messaging package. Recently, he wanted to upgrade his phone to something running the Android operating system so that he could browse the internet from his phone. He was taken aback, however, when the carrier representative told him that this phone required a $30/month data package. He was upset, but for the wrong reason.

“Can you believe it?” he asked me, “They wanted to charge me $30 a month for data! That’s crazy!”

“No,” I told him, “what’s crazy is that you’re paying $40-$50 each month for voice. I’m talking to you right now on a $25/month data plan. Talking.”

This took a little while to sink in. He didn’t quite get what I was saying, so I explained it to him.

Carriers charge their customers for voice airtime “minutes,” which are essentially packets of data that are prioritized over all other forms of communication in their cell towers. Each minute of talk time is like a reservation of the cell tower’s resources, requiring that the cell tower allocates a certain amount of its processing power and bandwidth to handle that single call. SMS messages consume such a tiny, infinitesimally small amount of that bandwidth that they have no impact whatsoever on the network. Other data (e.g. the Internet) is doled out as the cell tower allocates it. Carriers regularly cite all sorts of statistics regarding their mobile data usage, saying that it’s been increasing exponentially, uses more network backhaul than ever before and yadda yadda yadda. The true killer here is voice, and the shift to pure data will happen right under your nose. That being said, carriers will try to mask it all they can in order to charge you an arm and a leg for something that is not inherently different from anything else they offer.

4G, which is this buzzword that all sorts of carriers are throwing around now (some of whom don’t even have a true 4G network), is a data-only service right now. Data. 4G technology gives users more than enough bandwidth to be able to talk and browse the internet simultaneously. Heck, 4G networks have enough power to allow people to simultaneously video chat and and browse the internet simultaneously. I know, I’ve tried it, and they’re fast. A carrier could easily offer just a simple, flat-rate 4G internet plan for…say $40/month. For that, a person could talk, “text,” and browse the internet essentially without being limited by arbitrary caps to minutes, messages, or data consumption. Heck, we could even say $60/month could get you those privileges. “Wow, that’s cheap!” you might say. That’s right, it is, because those plans aren’t accompanied by the all-too-familiar “voice minutes” that we’re used to seeing now. All our voice is data right now, anyway, but carriers simply charge you differently for it.

Now, here’s the kicker. The carriers want to keep swindling you out of your money. They want to keep pulling every last dime they can out of you, and the way things are looking for mobile net neutrality, it looks like they’ll be able to. Recent laws that have been passed by Congress limit the amount of power the FCC has over mobile carriers, which essential allows them to charge you whatever they want for the “services” they offer. With the possible consolidation of T-Mobile under AT&T later this year (or early next year), this puts the American mobile consumer in dangerous territory. Verizon and AT&T will rule the air, and Sprint will carve out a niche (hopefully by offering real value in their services).

Ultimately, the mobile giants will find ways to squeeze extra money out of America by differentiating “voice” and “data.” This is insane, and you shouldn’t stand for it.

My next article will outline a plan to circumvent the impending storm, essentially to sandbag against a possible assault agains the mobile consumer space. This sounds crazy, I know, but it’s already happening. 4G will be the de facto standard very soon, and 5G will start to peek its head out from the horizon. What then? If Verizon and AT&T are doing this now, what will they do in five years? Ten? The future looks bleak, but stay tuned for ways to skirt the whole thing and save a pretty penny in the process.