Facebook Wants a Word

6 Jan 2013

This week, Facebook enabled Canadian users of its iOS Messenger App to speak to each other. The app was just an alternative to SMS, now it's a shot across the bow of Skype, Vonage, and the PSTN itself. The service also allows users to send short recorded messages. Like we really needed this. Regardless, it will no doubt get heavily used and the rest of the world is now anxiously awaiting the feature to expand beyond Canada.

This is the problem with unified communications. It's like herding cats - as soon as you unify some modalities, more (useless) ones are created. Unified Communications is rapidly becoming just code for more than traditional voice.

Canadian users can now use Facebook Messenger to communicate voice or text with any other Facebook messenger user worldwide. This is another over-the-top app that aims to replace and improve upon (over priced) carrier-based SMS services. In other words, there wouldn't be much demand for these new apps if carriers weren't over charging for the services.

These apps give rise to the discussion that the PSTN, or more accurately phone numbers, are dying. Why call a number when it is a person that you are attempting to reach? There are several answers to this - first and foremost it is because these apps are members-only clubs. Sometimes these clubs shut down, and more likely lose favor. For example, I have the same phone number today as I did when I had AOL.

Also, phone numbers are unique. It is great that my Skype list only has one John Smith, but the world has a few more. Calling someone in Skype is so intuitive, but that's because he was pre-placed into my contact list. I find it very difficult to find someone's Skype ID based on their real name - the directory has too many duplicates.

The other reason why phone numbers are here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future) is because they give us a little more control. I have a home number and a work number - yet only one cell number. Organizations like Facebook insist that we blur our boundaries, but this isn't acceptable to many.

I do enjoy trying these apps, I find them interesting as they all do the same basic thing with an interesting twist. But this members-only approach to communications tires quickly. It just isn't scalable. Not only do the remote users have to have a membership and app, but it generally needs to be on. The irony is that they generally run on smartphones which are quite capable of just calling anyway. In many cases, it's all just games to get around carrier fees like SMS or long distance.

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