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

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A better option would be a base station that uses VoIP over your choice of Wi-Fi or Ethernet, providing the same number to other base stations, such as one at home and one at work. You'd use a traditional handset (possibly cordless) for better voice quality, and when you're away from your base stations, the calls you want are autoforwarded to your cellphone, which would have a client that lets you respond from the call stream's number. That way, your personal cellphone number doesn't end up in business colleagues' hands -- or, worse, in marketers'.

Google Voice comes closest to delivering on this need, allowing you to set up groups and accompanying rules. For example, you might have calls from people in your friends and family groups ring each of your phone lines at any time of the day. People in your business group would have their calls routed to your home office and work office lines, and perhaps to your cellphone during business hours only. Strangers could be sent to Google Voice itself, which is essentially a cloud-based voicemail system that forwards you emails containing the audio files and call transcripts.

The Google Voice mobile app even lets you take and initiate calls on your smartphone using your Google Voice number, if you want, to hide your personal cellphone number from those who shouldn't have it. Google Voice is nearly free, charging only for international calls and some extra services. But Google Voice has flaws:

  • It gives you a single number for all callers. If you want any modicum of privacy and work/life balance, you end up treating it as a business call stream number and having your friends and family use only your actual cellphone number -- with the quality and battery-life problems that accompany smartphones.
  • To call out from your Google Voice number, you must use a software client. Pretty soon, people get a collection of multiple numbers for you anyhow.
  • It doesn't work with foreign phone numbers, such as to forward calls to your office in London. That's not an issue for most people, I admit.

Then there's the issue of privacy: I don't trust Web compamies with free services not to abuse information such as my personal contacts that it collects in those services. After all, the reason the services are free is that the company is using your personal information and/or ads to make money. In its Google Voice pages, Google makes no promises as to how it will use those phone numbers, emails, addresses, and so on in the uploaded contacts -- which made me fear it would mine them heavily and probably resell them. But a Google spokesperson assures me, "We never use your personal information without your approval, and we do not sell your personal information to third parties," and cites Google's privacy policy to that effect. Glad to hear! But I'm reminded that the Federal Trade Commission recently fined Google $22.5 million for breaking another privacy promise.

You can see the outlines of a successful digital-nomad phone service in Google Voice's rule-based approach, if it supported multiple phone numbers, if it supported handsets via VoIP for the same numbers in multiple locations, and if it didn't require a landline to use a quality handset. The ability to handle faxes should be a simple option, given that digital fax services have been around for years, exorbitant costs and all; ditto for basic teleconferencing. Videoconferencing is another story, but I suspect few really need it beyond simple "look, there's Grandma" uses that FaceTime and Skype handle quite well today.

Such a "digital nomad" service needn't be free -- and shouldn't, given that users would pay the worse price of robocalls à la MagicJack or sell their friends, as is likely the case in Google Voice.

So why are Apple, Google, or Microsoft (or their hardware partners) not delivering such a "true smartphone" service? One reason is that the telcos don't want to give up the landline businesses unless it is to their cellular businesses. If landlines became VoIP and cellphones use VoIP within buildings, telco profits would go down. You could argue that given their fretting over heavily burdened cellular networks, the telcos would be all over this notion, which makes you wonder about the true toll on those networks.

I suspect something like this will happen sooner or later, and carriers will make us pay for it through surcharges or bandwidth tiers, as they've started to do in cellular data. If the net cost is no more than the cost of maintaining landlines, I bet many of us will switch. Who's going to lead the way?

This article, "One number to rule them all: What smartphones miss today," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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