Hackit: Why we don’t need phone numbers

do_we_need_phone_numbers

We’re starting to think that phone numbers are deprecated; it may be time to integrate how we connect telephones with the new digital millennium. To get a firm grasp on this topic it is important to take a look at the reason we started using phone numbers, why we still use them, and the why’s and how’s of transitioning to a new system.

History of phone numbers

Telephone numbers started out as a way of physically addressing a telephone extension. Whether connected by an operator at a switchboard or through a magnetic exchange, each number corresponded to the hardware switch that connected the handset you were trying to ring. This originally started with named exchanges such as Pennsylvania-6-5000. The geographic location of the extension was  shown in the name and this system gradually transitioned over to area codes and prefixes.

Continued usage

The proliferation of cell phones means that numbers are no longer tied to a physical location but are routed to the nearest tower to which each wireless phone is currently connected. So why have we continued to use telephone numbers? Backwards compatibility is paramount. Cell phones overtook land lines years ago but there are still millions of people connected to the telephone companies’ wired networks. Most of the phones used on these land lines rely on the touch tone system to function. Even the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol implements the same system of connecting calls by dialing a number.

What works better than phone numbers?

How many different phone numbers does your family have? Many households have a home phone, a cell phone for each family member, and a work phone for each adult. What if all of these numbers were addressed similarly to how the Domain Name System works for internet addresses? Something like this:

phone://famiy.johndoe2155.voice/john_at_home

phone://family.johndoe2155.voice/jane_at_home

phone://www.your_company’s_domain.com/customer_service

This can be accomplished in the near future. All cell phones and many land line phones already have the ability to store numbers so that you only have to enter them once. Cell phones can already input web-style addresses and a firmware upgrade would allow for a new system of addressing and storing voice connection information. Service providers like Comcast and Charter are already providing phone service that utilizes VOIP, paving the way for dialing from your computer. For legacy hardware an inexpensive interface box similar to the digital cable converter boxes could be implemented. The new box would have a keyboard and character LCD and be rolled out in the same way that caller ID boxes were.

Conclusion

No one wants to change their telephone number and be in the position of trying to inform everyone who might ever call them. This is why laws were enacted to allow you to keep your telephone number if you change carriers. If each family owned their “voice domain”, changing carriers, cities, or even countries would be as simple as editing the domain registration. Transitioning to a new system of dynamically addressed telephone extensions is the next logical step in voice communications. Although it would be a change for billions of people, it is possible and worth taking a look at.

[photo credit Projekt Runeberg]

Comments

  1. DarwinSurvivor says:

    Except then we would run into the same BS system that ISP’s try to force on their customers. Most families would end up with “phone://family.telus.net/home” and the new “numbers” would once again be tied to the company you bought your phone service from.

    I know a few people that can’t switch ISP’s simply because their email is too well known for them to lose.

    I also don’t like the idea of requiring a 40 character keyboard (26 letters, 10 numbers, dots/underscores/etc) on every phone. That would get really annoying really fast.

    Phone numbers are old and deprecated, but we have to remember that the system to replace it must be backwards compatible (converters are fine) and sensible for physically small devices.

  2. grumfus says:

    I’m all for advancing technology, but this sounds to me like another solution in search of a problem.

    let’s spend our time on more productive engineering exercises… like twittering toilets.

  3. therian says:

    another fix of what not broken

  4. miket says:

    Saying we don’t need phone numbers because we can use a named address is like saying we don’t need IP addresses because I have have a domain name. Phone number == IP address. That’s not to say that the phone number addressing scheme is woefully outdated but look to the IPv6 migration from IPv4 if you want an idea how changing it would play out…

  5. limey says:

    and when that’s done, we can focus our attention on replacing obsolete social security numbers with human-readable character strings identifying the person associated with that string… whoops… forget it… that’s my name.

  6. louis ii says:

    I don’t think your suggestion makes sense to me… it’s a lot more strait forward to memorize a 7-10 digit string of numbers that can by typed as just that than it is to (see first reply).

    If your system was to work, it would still need to rely on some sort of number system, lest it confuse the users too much; humans are used to reference numbers. If SS numbers weren’t tied to weirdness, I’d say those would be the optimum identifiers of individuals for phone calling; one number calling all devices… but then, what happens when 8 people share a phone line?

    The proposition of this article just does not seem to hold any relevant purpose to our collective reality.

  7. donovan says:

    SIP (most VOIP systems use this) and XMPP (this google talk / jabber) type protocals already use an email like syntax for identifying clients (i.e. phones). Which is based on DNS discovery and then peer to peer / proxy negotiation.

    So we’re already headed into the no number future since the spread of SIP enable phones and proliferation of apps / services like Google Voice is rapidly increasing.

  8. Ian Tester says:

    Why would you have “www” in a phone:// URI?

    It should simply be phone://company.com/customer_service

  9. Jack says:

    It would only make things harder to remember, and would probably not be practical if you are over using someone elses phone or a pay phone and you want to call home, are you going to easily remember a 20-40 character address or a 10 digit number? We could just carry arduinos around to dial for us.

  10. TJ says:

    There are already RFCs and IETF standards for this so that one “designator” can reach you regardless of what you’re using (landline, mobile, voip, wet string).

    Perhaps implement research-before-ranting protocol.

    Needing to only remember 12-14 digits to reach most people with a phone anywhere in the world is a pretty compact system.

    If you’re a real hacker you convert all phone numbers to hex and back in your head with a flag to indicating leading zeroes and cut it down to under 10 alphanumerics..

  11. Pilotgeek says:

    Hey guess what? Know your fancy domain names you speak of? They still need an IP address. IP addresses are similar to phone numbers in the leveled numbering system, and they’re what makes our magical internet work. No matter what, we need numbers to address certain devices no matter whether they are tied to specific location or not. Sure, we could make some sort of name addressing system to go on top of that like we do with domain names, but why? It’s easier to type in numbers on a phone. The reason domain names exist is so we don’t have to remember numbers for every public website but phone numbers tend to be more private. Your private home network doesn’t have its own domain, does it?

  12. Thomas says:

    yes yes… because “phone://famiy.johndoe2155.voice/john_at_home” is MUCH easier to give out & remember than 817-555-1234…

    sheesh…

  13. Anonymoose says:

    Not going to rehash all the stuff posted here, but I’d like to point out that this also breaks the unlisted number concept.

    In addition I could also see this sort of thing making “address guessing” easy using things like common name dictionaries. That would be a telemarketers dream, and a regular home phone user’s nightmare.

  14. John42 says:

    At the end, everything comes down to bytes, bits, 0s and 1s.

    So essentially everything is a number that’s in a computer.
    phone://family.johndoe.voice is also a number (presented in text), it’s just much longer.

    But 812-555-1212 is easier to tell and spell.

  15. Leif says:

    While the concept of logical addressing is intriguing, it has some limitations too, such as knowing the location, family membership, etc (the “domain”) of the person. What happens when someone gets married, does the family name change?

    Why not just address the person directly?

    We already have Social Security numbers bonded to a person at birth – why not use that to address an individual?

    Aside from being computer-friendly (it’s numerical), it fits the infrastructure perfectly. The allocation system is automatic (get born, get a number. easy). The nine digit ss#, followed by the connection number (up to 10 connections per ss#). Your number would follow you everywhere.

    Besides SS#s are a joke when it comes to “security.” An easily memorized 9-digit number? Come on. That will get fixed once we get a national/global biometric database that actually verifies identity (rather than memory).

  16. Neckbeard says:

    Well thought out article Hackaday. With your reasoning we may as well do away with IP address’ too.

    @Jack yeah maybe an arduino based solution would be best!

  17. dnafrequency says:

    Google Voice already fixed this problem.

  18. monopole says:

    pilotgeek is right, it all comes down to numbers in the end. No need to throw them away or even appreciably change them. What is desirable is to build a DNS on top of them that allows for a common mnemonic device to obtain the desired number. As a practical matter this is really just a “411” protocol purged of ambiguity.

    This is already happening in practice. My new phone hides the numeric keypad in a slider. I generally call or text based on recent calls and entries in my phone. In essence I’m using a list of bookmarks. The presence of a DNS would simply expedite new number lookup. The option of 411 texting a ‘business card’ that my phone could add to its address book would be largely sufficient.

  19. Jonathan says:

    not useful… what happens if a family grows up, moves, maybe divorces, marriages, etc. The naming system falls apart.

    All you need is a location-neutral identifier. much like an ip address, but with a whole new namespace. then some sort of dns with simple easy to remember alphanumeric string that will look up the device’s address.

    Basically, what you’d end up with is… a phone number.

  20. Michel says:

    A better solution is to have a unique phone number and attach more telephone numbers to this one, this works.
    Thinking on an alternative solution it’s not so good.

  21. ney frota says:

    yeap! email syntax its better

    ======================
    scenario
    ======================

    dial to me… neyfrota@att.com (phone:neyfrota@att.com url) and ring on my mobile

    and if i want.. i just got my domain frota.com and use my phone server (included in my hosting package) .. now i got

    phone:ney@frota.com
    phone:mom@frota.com

    and i use my phone server in my domain to create voicemail, route ney@frota.com to whatever@someplace.com

    ======================
    what we have
    ======================
    sip:user@domain.com … this is real in sip world.

    ======================
    smell like money
    ======================
    for sure we will get … neyfrota@facebook.com … a service to route to my phone and also manage contacts and voice mail in facebook …. think same in many other “web 5.0″ company

    ======================
    follow the money
    ======================
    now .. think At&t… think at&t+apple… think hight prices for long distance… do you really believe phone company will loose the control? No way!!! we still have numbers, because they dont want evolve … money dont evolve, money just create more money :)

    dont wait that change come from mobile company. embrace sip, support hardware that allow sip over any network (not iphone+att), create good and simple phone services, start your own phone service (and fight with google voice)… any more ideas?

  22. kyle says:

    I can see it now. DNS poisoning becomes the 2020 version of ‘Call 555-5555 for a good time’.

  23. Peter says:

    I like the idea of leaving phone numbers in the dust. It wouldn’t be too hard to do it either. Think about how cell phones have slowly overcome landlines. This system could be put in place over the current system and you could use either your Phone Address or Phone Number. As users get used to addresses over numbers, phone numbers can be phased out into the background as a unique identifier for the carriers. Then if they needed they could even just start using MAC Addresses and get rid of the phone numbering system.

    I think of it like email addresses, people are able to remember them or enter them in their phones or contact managers.

    Haven’t the phone companies had trouble with the current phone numbering system running out of numbers that they have to overlap area codes?

  24. varjag says:

    So, what’s wrong with sip:yourname@yourdomain scheme? See “Session Initiation Protocol”, RFC 3261. It’s been used for years in VoIP now, and yes it does allow non-numeric usernames.

  25. ney frota says:

    yes! sip is what we have!
    We already have the tools.

  26. nave.notnilc says:

    hang on, where does the arduino go?

    more seriously though, having a system for people to link a variety of services to a personal domain that can switch backends for each of these services would be extremely useful, from phone calls to email to websites.

  27. supershwa says:

    There’s just the matter of convincing 33 million canadians, 300 million U.S., 730 mil eu, etc. to curb away from a system that’s been familiar to them for so long. a few numbers is also easier to remember than “uri:howthafookisthisdomainspeled.com” format. Those with spelling problems would be pretty pissed too.

    if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

  28. supershwa says:

    let’s also not forget the billions of telephones currently out there. there’s no simple backwards-compatibility method in place for it.

    I say this idea is burned…………….

    we need phone numbers for the same reason we use forks and spoons – for ease-of-use, and so we don’t make a fucking mess!

  29. Fry-kun says:

    I agree that phone numbers are an antiquity, but URLs are much more annoying to remember.
    Another problem with them — what if you want an “anonymous number”?
    I think a system like email addresses would work much better.
    Ideally, user would be free to give out franziska@von.karma.com on her resume and foolswillbewhipped@gmail.com to a stranger in a bar. She’d be able to define which of these goes to which physical device (switching on the fly, adding/removing addresses, etc.)

    Allocating one address to one device is last century thinking ;)

  30. ney frota says:

    numbers are not easy to remember.. i only know 3 or 4 numbers by mind… all others i use my phonebook

    names are easy to remember, for sure.

    with names i can use same name for email, im, phone, website… like i do (not in phone level)

    but, this is possible only on SIP word, not on phone word…

    what we really need is:

    1 – a killer sip phone app… something like skype on sip .. everybody has, work in many platforms, everybody knows how to use

    2 – services to connect old phone network with SIP word (dial IN and dial OUT credits)

    3 – let live flows and see the changes.

  31. monkeyslayer56 says:

    ok before i say anything else let me say this I DID NOT READ EVERY POST so forgive me if this ahs been posted. now on with the post…

    you could use a phone number a an IP address and then make the phone number domain optional(registering your IP with an DNS provider for instance) and then either give people your phone number(IP address) and they can call you wile u could also just give someone your domain name(such as phone://mydomnain.com) and then if u changed numbers a lot(switching from cell to landline/moving a lot) then you could do that and since the Domain anme would be optional u still would have the “unlisted” number option. and then u wouldn’t need those long and hard to remember addresses(phone://famiy.johndoe2155.voice/john_at_home) idk for sure if that would work but with IPv6 coming out i don’t see why we cna’t use those extra address to tie them to a phone number or just simply have the phone company tie the phone number to the internet some how(modified IPv6 address maybe?) idk but thats my 2 cents on the matter

  32. Anonymoose says:

    Another thought as to why it wouldn’t likely happen is because carriers use call data records to track for billing.

    These CDRs contain a great amount of information about a call, and are a specific format. Software has been written to deal with these things, and the software would require changes (in some cases radical ones).

    Furthermore, software has been written for telephony switches too, that would have to be updated.

  33. Mark Roduner says:

    Besides arm long URLs to address everyone, I’m surprised everyone here seems to think the rest of the world would want to, or even can be, represented within the roman alphabet? Even with localization of the character sets, calling ايران, 日本, or even Ελλάδα, would be a herculean chore.

    Phone numbers however, use a universal human construct… numbers, and a nearly global usage of arabic numerals. You know… could there be a reason why nobody has tried this bright idea with devices with a limited input system?

    In closing… this seems like a solution^w a problem in search of a problem.

  34. KingOfDos says:

    The technique (what people describe as sip:user@example.com) for VoIP based on DNS is calld SIP URI.

    Quote @ supershwa:
    “a few numbers is also easier to remember than uri:howthafookisthisdomainspeled.com format.”

    Remember, that’s a USER problem! No, *not* the person who wants to remember the domain name, but the person who choose to register the domain.

  35. SoulSalmon says:

    @KingOfDos
    I think that’s what he’s saying.

    My 2 cents:
    Basically this might look all well and good on paper, but in practice it’s just not practical.
    The email format MIGHT work but theres still the problem of phasing out the old system… basically once someone moves to the “new” system everyone on the “current” system would be cut off from them.

  36. Numbers are way easier to remember and deal with than names, this is why we all use IP addresses instead of domain names.

    Seriously, are you guys listening to yourselves?

  37. moshguy says:

    I believe that the article presents an interesting point. The telephone numbering system is antiquated and could use some updating.

    There were some folks that said remembering a domain name is going to be harder than a phone number. I’ll be the first to say is wrong. We’ll even put it to the test. We can have a group of 15 people memorized 10 phone numbers and 10 domain names in 5 minutes. My money would be on the domain names being remembered better than the phone numbers.

  38. Sid B says:

    There’s a solution already in place that is doing exactly what you’re proposing above. Its called .tel (or “dot tel”).

    Have a look at http://telnic.org for more details.

  39. Rachid says:

    Why not do it the other way around using ENUM ?

  40. jim says:

    No one wants to change their telephone number and be in the position of trying to inform everyone who might ever call them. So I have Google Voice now

  41. Tetrafluoroethane says:

    Normally I like the idea of changing things up, but this seems insanely bad for a couple of reasons.

    First: to maintain proper portability, everyone needs their own domain. Not such a big deal until I find my family domain has already been registered by a family with the same name. Then we have a problem. I am sure I am not the only person in the world with my exact name and that is bound to be a problem.

    Second: verbal clarity. While many methods exist for me to transfer my phone number to you, one common method is verbally. It is much clearer speaking a string of numbers than a string of letters. Did you say ‘V’? Or ‘B’? Or was that ‘D’? Or ‘E’? Unless everybody learns the phonetic alphabet, this would be a potential stumbling block.

    I am, however, in favor of reform! ;) I would like to see the phone number system become more of a global namespace. Find a more universal format similar to IP that could hopefully address any potential phone user in the world. I like the ability we have currently to shorten the number by leaving off the country code, but I am in favor of full 10-digit dialing.

    Just my ha’penny.

  42. andrew says:

    this is a bad idea.

  43. octelcogopod says:

    @monkeyslayer56:
    You should have read EVERY post

  44. sansan says:

    Probably is easier 911 than

    phone://san_jose_ca_usa.police_department.voice/emegency “help!”

  45. monkeyslayer56 says:

    @octelogopod
    there were so many post and so little time…
    @ sansan
    that is probable the reason they don’t just make us suffer with it lol

  46. Matthew says:

    While I detest the idea of eliminating telephone numbers entirely (I use rotary dialing), I would certainly not mind to see some sort of DNS-like system implemented over top.

    (Warning: a tangent follows.)

    However, a point was raised about transferrable telephone numbers. In this respect, the internet is, in fact, lagging the telephone system, for static IP addresses are far from universal. I would like to see a law passed mandating static, transferrable IP addresses for all ISP customers, so that if I wished select friends to be able to view my site or otherwise access my network, I could simply tell them to connect to, for example, 10.10.10.10, and it would work indefinitely.

    Just my $0.02.

  47. Ivan says:

    While I can understand the assumption that “the phone system has not evolved because it needs to be backwards compatible,” I disagree. The system used isolates groups and individuals requiring them to pay to connect. Further, the current information string used to address phones requires far less system resources to use. It’s about using the least resources to get our money, not about keeping landlines in the loop. It would actually be very simple for companies to decide that all landlines would be returned and replaced with a modem and handset. They would gladly pass the cost on to the consumer. We could have a numberless system in place in only as long as it would take to manufacture the devices and tell customers to come in and switch.

    Truly, the biggest reason we don’t need phone numbers is because we have so many computers and wireless devices. Anything done by phone can be accomplished with simple voice messaging programs. The only requirement is knowing which program and an e-mail address, and of course paying your ISP (no need to pay long distance even if your ISP is a cell provider). Cell providers already provide a connection to the internet, if your cell had an MSN app (just an example) you could text and/or voice chat without using a number. BUT, data transfer is a lot more bandwidth and information to deal with.

    Phone numbers are a well established means of generating revenue, that’s it.

  48. JayD says:

    Say hello to the real problem with cell phones – lack of coverage! I just read last week that China is getting the iPhone. That’s good for China but still no good for most of Middle GA USA. Get 5 miles off the interstate in our area and the US doesn’t even have service with AT&T or Sprint or the signal is down to none or one bar and unusable. An iPhone here is nothing but a $500 paperweight. It should be illegal to let only one company sell a product from another company. Apple, AT&T and Sprint can kiss my blackberry! In general, people don’t really care how a phone number is routed or how it works as long as it actually works. no shoes, no service, big problem.

  49. Wwhat says:

    So basically what we could do is a central computerized white pages ‘DNS’ system that is run efficiently and globally, by parties not tied to a business or government, then we can use number as normal but if the subscriber wishes he can make an alphanumeric address too.

  50. Wwhat says:

    @JayD paperweight is overdoing it, it still has apps and music and stuff, it just can’t do calls.

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