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Reinventing the phone call

Reinventing the phone call: it’s all about purpose

For the last 120 years, humans have able to speak remotely, using a service called “telephony” (from the Greek for “voice at a distance”). It has been hugely successful, with billions of people speaking for trillions of minutes on the phone. In recent years, a large proportion of the market has adopted mobile telephony in addition, or as a full substitute. This has been almost identical in terms of the service and user experience, except for replacing an audible “dial-tone” with a green button on the keypad to connect, and a red one to end the call.

Various other enhancements to telephony have been introduced over the years – voicemail, three-way calls, conferencing, business telephone systems, caller ID, call logs and so forth.

But the basic proposition and user interaction-model has remained unchanged. Person A calls person B, for X minutes. In many ways, it could be called a “dumb service” – the phone system is a generic tool, used for a million different purposes – from calling a friend for a chat, to agreeing an acquisition, to making an appointment at the doctor. It is a jack-of-all-trades, usually measured and priced in proportion to calls’ duration.

But while telephony remains immensely popular – and indeed, has shaped the entire telecoms industry in its image – it does not represent the last, or best, word in “distant voice communications”.

The “phone call” is an imperfect product. And despite most people in the industry referring to “voice” calls or revenues, neither is telephony the only voice-communications product. Others have been around for years: push-to-talk services, intercoms, private radio like taxi dispatch or CB, even voice-chat in online multi-player games. All of these are voice communications, yet very clearly different to a traditional phone call.

And while services like Skype seem to have a familiar “call” format, many people now start an interaction with instant messages, before “upgrading” to a voice or video call, only when it is convenient for both parties.

Each of these “other voice” formats is actually better than phone calls in some way – Skype integrates IM and presence in a useful way (as well as video), private radio offers hands-free one-to-many communications, gamers’ software can support stereo or 3D sound. They fulfill a specific “purpose” better than run-of-the-mill phone calls. They also all have different pricing and business models, more aligned with the users’ perceived value than “minutes”.

However, set against the huge range of human communication scenarios, each of these just scratches the surface – and they can be quite expensive to create and maintain. We tend to overlook such niches, as they are small exceptions against the telephony norm.

Yet various technical, commercial and behavioural trends are about to make the trend faster and more obvious. We are approaching “peak telephony”. It is getting easier and cheaper to create “purpose-specific” voice communications – for example, making it into a secondary feature of a web-page or app.

Speaking to your bank manager might become something you do inside your banking app, rather than making a separate call. Not only that, but the interaction might work differently to a traditional phone call, perhaps with a scheduling tool, recording (for you as well as the bank) and even a security-check using your voiceprint. Other voice applications might work like Snapchat, with “ephemerality” built-in, with a speech message “self-destructing”. A medical diagnosis app might be able to tell more about your sore throat from your unusual hoarseness – or use a sensor in the phone to detect a fever. The more musically-inclined might participate in a networked karaoke session – or even a remote rap battle.

None of these are “phone calls” in the traditional sense – and that’s without even considering the possible addition of video. Each can be optimised for a particular purpose – which can also allow value to derived in a tailored, use-case specific fashion.

As well as the flexibility of mobile apps, an emerging technology called WebRTC (realtime communications) is a likely candidate for accelerating these trends. It allows software and web developers to embed voice or video communications much more easily than in the past, with minimal requirement to understand complex network protocols or speech encoding tools. These new voice apps/sites might be standalone, or might inter-work with the traditional phone system, if it makes sense.

Yet this is just characterising the expanding “supply” side of voice communications. Another trend is a softening – or even decline – of telephony “demand”.

Part of the problem is that phone calls are interruptive. The caller has the ability to disturb the callee. This was fine in the days when prices were high – the callee could reasonably assume that all calls were important, and worth breaking off from other tasks. Now, it is common for trivial or non-time sensitive calls to interrupt other important activities.

The author recently heard someone say “The only people who call me nowadays are my parents, or people I don’t want to talk to. Everyone else has a better way to get in touch“.

This growing resentment of the humble phone call is not new. Many have observed that teenagers often prefer to text or IM each other, rather than call. While some held the view this was for cost reasons, it is becoming clear that actually many just do not like speaking on the phone (or perhaps the process of making or receiving calls, rather than speech itself). The same is increasingly true of older age groups – multi-tasking urbanites often prefer asynchronous communications tools, except in specific circumstances.

It must be noted that the patterns vary by country and demographic – some seem to remain inveterate talkers, while others are shifting to alternative modes of communication.

Again, the central issue here is “purpose”; more specifically, the lack of its indication. While (sometimes) caller ID displays the inbound number, this does not always identify the person or organisation calling, and certainly not the reason why. We still see this legacy thinking in smartphone design – a call has the power to interrupt any other app. Yet why should a trivial call distract you from a critical moment in a spreadsheet or game? Or indeed, take precedence over your conversation inside the banking app.

In some ways, the traditional telephone call is being upgraded as well – developers can also use it as a “raw ingredient” inside apps, via specific APIs (application programming interfaces). For some uses, the traditional phone number will remain an important identifier too – so much so, that it is also embraced by Internet communications apps like Viber and Whatsapp.

However, such enhancements only go so far – they are facelifts, rather than a radical rethink of the telephony basic service. The new 4G “voice” standard, VoLTE, should more accurately be renamed ToLTE. It isn’t going to supporting music-jamming in stereo, a policeman’s gunshot-detection microphone and alert system, or even a security guard’s walkie-talkie function.

We are also seeing the phone network get a (belated) technical upgrade to better audio quality with HD voice, as well as itself being integrated with WebRTC and perhaps video. But it still has very limited ways of becoming “purpose-specific”, and it is still measured in minutes, with interruptive ringing and the expectation of a formal “Hello, this is Person X speaking, how are you?” etiquette.

The future of voice communications will reflect the true sources of value – why do people want to speak remotely, what is the context, and what do they want to do with the conversation (record it, analyse it, translate it etc) via cloud or “hypervoice” functions. In a way, “voice” itself is will become just a subset of “audio”, as the Internet of Things starts to use microphones and speakers for other purposes than conversation.

Standalone phone calls will not disappear. But they will need to evolve in functionality, and co-exist with hundreds of alternatives and substitutes, some of them “services”, while others reshape voice as merely a feature of a broader application.

This represents a fundamental shift to one of the defining technologies of human civilisation, yet few have recognised its importance. It has ramifications economically, socially, politically, legally and technically. All the regulation of the telecom industry assumes a single, monolithic application – the “call”. In future, the rules will have to adapt to a much more fragmented, purpose-specific reality for voice, as will the service providers and application platforms.

We may even see some people choosing to “cut the number” entirely, if they do not need a generic, lowest-common denominator service. Apart from emergency calling, why should anyone pay significant subscription fees, solely to be interrupted by people they have no interest in speaking to?

The telecoms and web industry needs to understand that “the phone call” is starting a slow slide towards commoditisation, replacement and eventual obsolescence. But what comes next is going to fit much better with humans’ real needs of communication.


This article highlights one of the broader themes emerging from Disruptive Analysis’ work on “the future of communications”. If you are interested in the general shift away from telephony, please get in touch with Dean Bubley. In particular, the technology of WebRTC is a major focus – see this link for details of a strategic research report. The author is @disruptivedean on Twitter and has a separate blog here.

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