January 28, 2013
As seen on Forbes
With the news that Facebook launched a feature enabling voice messages through its Messenger app, we may not be far from a world where you can talk to almost anyone, anywhere, without dialing a phone number. While Facebook Messenger is hardly the voice service available through other Web-based voice services like Vonage, Skype or Apple FaceTime, the massive global Facebook user base makes it the first with the potential for truly mainstream adoption on a global scale.
Now more than ever, control is in the consumers’ hands. How they want to receive communication, whether through email, free messaging services or now Facebook, is up to them.
What would a world without traditional phone numbers look like? Remarkably similar to today. After all, just like there was a shift from landlines to mobile phones, we’ve already witnessed significant changes in how people are using smartphones and tablets to communicate with each other. People currently use a myriad of messaging apps across desktop and mobile devices to connect by voice, text, and video – in real-time or asynchronously – however it suits our needs.
When was the last time you actually dialed a friend’s phone number from memory instead of selecting their name on a list of stored favorites – or simply using a voice command? When you search for a business on your mobile (forget about calling 411; that’s already pretty much a thing of the past), do you dial the number in the results, or have your mobile do it automatically? Once an unavoidable part of communication over distance, the phone number is quickly receding into irrelevance. While some carriers still use phone numbers to identify specific user devices or accounts, Apple has abandoned them in favor of unique device IDs (UDIDs). For the rising generation of consumers, phone numbers already seem as archaic as party lines.
If Facebook Messenger does finish off the need for a phone number, its demise will come only after a long decline. If this is indeed a foregone conclusion, the question becomes what this means for carriers, marketers and consumers?
For consumers, there’s both good and bad news. On the one hand, seamless and convenient communication across platforms gives us complete control over how we want to communicate. On the other hand, we can expect unlimited data plans to join the phone number in oblivion. Indeed, this is already largely the case. No longer able to make money on minutes, carriers must now charge by the gigabyte, as IP-based communications flood networks already overburdened by media streams and downloads. We’ll have to learn a whole new math of file sizes and rates - new apps are already coming online to help with this. And they will need to pay significantly more attention to whether we’re connected via wireless or wifi when we use data-intensive apps.
For carriers, the need for a new pricing structure is more obvious than the best way to introduce it. Consumer habits and expectations can be stubbornly hard to reshape, especially when they’ve become accustomed to all-you-can-eat pricing that makes each additional call and minute seem free. It can be argued that carriers should have seen this new market reality coming long ago, and made the necessary adjustments. Fair enough – but the fact remains that at the very time carriers needed to upgrade their infrastructure to support a new world of mobile media and communications, they are faced with new challenges in monetizing their business. Some carriers are moving quickly to build new revenue streams beyond smartphones and tablets.
Marketers have been thinking in cross-platform terms for years. It’s been a long time since telemarketing and direct mail were the only ways to reach targeted consumers. Now they can engage their target audiences through everything from online display advertising to social media, apps and email, along with good old dependable mobile messaging. The hard part is knowing where people are, and how they prefer to be reached. A consumer can “like” a brand’s Facebook page and follow them on Twitter, but still resent being contacted via email. People who provide their phone number in an opt-in database might welcome mobile messaging offers and contests, but take offense if you call them. How do you keep track of it all, and make sure you’re driving conversions rather than alienation?
It’s striking to think how quickly this all has happened. It was less than six years ago that Apple introduced the iPhone, sparking the mass adoption of smartphones and the rise of today’s mobile, cross-platform, cross-channel communications and media environment. And the rate of change shows no sign of slowing. Make no mistake: the way people use phone numbers is changing drastically and the previous concept of how they use them is circling the drain. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when mobile phone numbers outranked landlines. We can speculate about what comes next, but one thing is already clear: it’s only a matter of time and these changes will take place sooner than you think.