One number to rule them all: What smartphones miss today

Buzz centers on smartphones, but new generation of digital nomads are begging for innovation in landlines, VoIP

All eyes are on smartphones. Last week saw the Lumia 920, Nokia's attempt to become relevant to mobile users through digital photography, along with Motorola Razr upgrades that showed Google's Motorola Mobility is still mired in device thinking. This week, the iPhone 5 added performance improvements, though of the sort that stayed within the traditional lines of a smartphone.

These incremental updates show that Apple, the Google/Motorola/Samsung/HTC Android axis, and the Microsoft-Nokia Windows Phone partnership are missing a key gap in today's mobile market: the phone itself. Apple's iPhone reinvented the smartphone as a computer that can make phone calls; Android and Windows Phone take the same fundamental view. That's problematic in a world where many workers are increasingly mobile, moving from site to site or even between the home and the office, juggling multiple phone lines and numbers. (Analyst firms call these workers "digital nomads," by the way.)

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Yes, there have been attempts to make phone numbers and phone connections portable, but they're all unsatisfactory. The truth is that most digital nomads have an office phone, a home office phone, and a mobile phone. It's tempting to consolidate on a smartphone, especially now as major carriers are moving to unlimited voice usage. Because people use less voice service these days as they text and email more, that capacity is increasingly idle, and carriers don't want to allocate it to data because they can make more on it when used for voice -- or raise data fees due to alleged bandwidth scarcity. The hope is to migrate users from landlines to cellular.

Even with the removal of the price barrier to going all-cellphone for phone calls, plenty of other barriers render the cellphone-only option unpalatable:

  • Call quality is inferior.
  • Smartphone batteries don't last long with frequent radio use, such as when talking.
  • Smartphones tend to get hot and sticky during long calls.
  • Calls from salespeople, pollsters, and others become unavoidable, interrupting you even if you don't answer them.
  • Separating work time from personal time becomes even harder.
  • Smartphones don't handle faxes (a decreasing need, to be sure).

While the smartphone industry ignores the phone part of the equation, the phone and conferencing industries have done little for the digital nomads in return.

Microsoft has been pushing its Lync unified communications service for several years, but it's tied into Exchange and biased toward Windows, requiring huge overhead to maintain and an admin to manage. Cisco Systems and Avaya have similarly complex, proprietary systems designed for the Fortune 500 -- and no one else. Avaya recently unveiled a VoIP service for small businesses, but like so many similar products, it's tied to a PC you must leave running. Thus, you're less mobile than with a landline (cordless phones have much more range than Bluetooth headsets) and an enemy of the planet. The fudamental technology was designed for telemarketers and other call center employees, not digital nomads -- and it shows.

Broadband-connected VoIP-only services like Vonage are similarly limiting. The cheapest of such services, MagicJack Plus makes its money by playing advertisements on the phone -- robocalls you can't turn off. T-Mobile has tried on and off for several years to offer cellphones that switch to Wi-Fi when available, but it never quite delivers.

Plus, using VoIP doesn't address the actual need: the ability to manage several call streams on a device you take with you. A call stream is basically a phone number, and digital nomads usually need two, one for personal use and another for business. A dual-number cellphone could suffice if you could turn off the business ringer. (Apple's forthcoming iOS 6 has such a capability for all alerts, so that could be adapted to specific alerts or call streams.) But there are no such smartphones, and although some apps provide this capability, the services are expensive. You're still left with the drawbacks of the cellphone itself as a phone.

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