A friend of mine who lives in Athens is in New York this week, and last night he called me (I'm in London). We chatted for about half an hour on our mobile phones.
Now if this was a regular mobile-to-mobile call, it would probably have cost him somewhere north of 100€ considering he's roaming and calling abroad. Instead, we both used the Skype app on our iPhones, so the incremental cost of the call to either of us was zero - though his host and I still, of course, pay a flat monthly fee for broadband to make this possible; I try to be careful about throwing the term "free" around!
There's something wrong with this picture and a lot of people are beginning to realise this. It's been true for years that two people with Internet connections can talk - even video chat - for as long as they want without paying a dime above their flat Internet access rate, regardless of where they are in the world. Doing this on a plain old telephone, for some reason, costs an arm and a leg. Doing it on a mobile phone, well, just don't ask.
Not that mobile pricing makes any sense anyway. If I pay T-mobile UK £5 a month I can download up to 3 gigabytes (a little over 3.2 billion bytes) of data to my phone. For the same price (actually £1 more, but I'll cut them some slack), I get 100 text messages, each limited to 140 bytes. That's 14 thousand bytes. What I'm trying to understand here is why text messages are two hundred and thirty thousand times more expensive than Internet traffic in T-mobile's price plan. Anybody got an answer? Didn't think so.
Now that the Internet has reached mobile devices and appliances, and mobile and landline cordless phones come with VoIP software, people are realising the ridiculousness of traditional phone pricing. The most ridiculous thing about it is that most services are priced out of the market. What's the point of offering me the ability to roam, or make video calls, or send picture messages with my mobile phone at a cost so high I'm just going to end up not doing it? Nobody I know ever uses his phone's video calling features even though they're standard on most phones today. Almost everybody I know who spends more than a couple of days abroad usually buys a local SIM card for their phone, neatly side-stepping the issue at the cost of the slight inconvenience of not being able to use his phone number.
Which brings us to the crux of the problem: The reason the dinosaur telcos haven't been eaten alive by these VoIP startups already is because they control the all-important namespace: The telephone numbers. Even though anybody can route phone calls (or video calls, or text messages, or emails, or anything else for that matter) over the Internet for trivial costs, the minute you want one of those old-fashioned phone numbers at either end of the call you have to deal with telcos and their ridiculous pricing models.
This whole thing with the phone numbers is really stupid anyway. I get very poor mobile reception at home but I still don't want to use my landline for several reasons: First, I need to give people two numbers, and they have to bother trying them both. Second, there's a privacy issue - just because I'm willing to take your call doesn't mean I want you to know I'm at home right now. Third, I'd have to get a second voicemail, second missed-call list, second everything. The list goes on, but what it all boils down to is that although I like having a landline phone (because of reception, but also because I can have a handset with big buttons, a big screen and a big battery since it doesn't have to fit in my pocket) I can't live with the idea of a landine phone number.
Not that I want one number to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. There's a flip side to this; a colleague of mine, who is also a personal friend, has a mobile phone from work that she uses for work calls and her own personal phone for personal calls. She has to carry both around with her, keep them charged, turn them to silent at the same time, and for several people who have both of her numbers this leads to no end of confusion and frustration. She has the opposite problem: She needs two phone numbers but is inconvenienced by the need to have two phones.
This strong tying of device to phone number is completely unnecessary in this day and age. Just like you can have 5 different email addresses but read all of them from your home computer, your work computer, your laptop and your phone, you should be able to have any number of phone numbers (one for work, one for the part-time job, one for close friends, one for your mother-in-law that just goes straight to voicemail) and be able to make and receive calls on them from any phone you own. If you're living in today's imperfect world of telco dinosaurs and you happen to live in a different country to where you grew up, it would also be nice if you could have a number in each country and route between them over the Internet so your family could call you without paying exhorbitant fees.
Well guess what? Now you can. Google Voice, the re-branded name for a company Google bought a few months ago that used to be called Grand Central, has just launched - although presently just for old Grand Central users - and offers you just what I described: As many numbers as you want, as many devices as you want, in any combination you want.
Unfortunately the dinosaurs are still around, and this is only possible in the United States. Why? Because in the US it's the norm for mobile phone (excuse me, "cellphone") users to pay for incoming calls, which Google Voice can continue to do - the termination charges that are the norm in the rest of the world would quickly put Google out of pocket to the dinosaurs quickly.
So it's here, but not quite yet - and unfortunately, not quite complete. The next logical step is to be able to merge these phone numbers (and why does it have to be a number? Can't it look like an email address or domain name instead, so it's easier to remember?) so that I can use it for IM, email, even this blog. What we need is an online identity system with a matching namespace - not so everyone can have a unique public ID, but so everyone can have as many public IDs as they want but be able to access them all from anywhere. One day the dinosaurs will wake up, or even better, be eaten up. In the mean time, you can reach me at one of the following twenty numbers, addresses and IM handles...