Don’t Lose That Number: Why Mobile Communications Is Still About Digits

Wireless carriers are the punching bags of the mobile industry, notorious for holding back innovative services they don’t control to preserve existing profits. Oftentimes they’ve earned that enmity, but making the leap from a voice-oriented world organized around a ten-digit number to a data-oriented world organized around bits and identity is not something that would happen overnight if they suddenly changed their tune.

Several compelling developments emerged this past week about the future of mobile communications. Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) previewed its iMessage product, designed (like Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger) to give iPhone users a way of communicating with each other without texting or e-mailing. Evidence emerged that good-old-fashioned SMS text messages may have peaked, putting a huge source of wireless industry profits into question. And Nilay Patel uncorked a solid rant at This Is My Next pointing out that a mobile-identity system based around a numerical convention from the late 1940s designed to make it easier to use rotary phones doesn’t make a bit of sense in the 21st century of Internet services accessible across multiple devices.

There’s no doubt that it’s silly: even with number portability, phone numbers are meaningless for modern mobile devices that have no fixed location except for one key detail. Phone numbers are an international standard recognized by nearly everyone (even North Korea), allowing calls and text messages to be placed between San Francisco and China or Argentina and Norway through simple codes.

The various Internet-based communications services that are emerging lack that universal touch. It’s obviously not because of the Internet itself, perhaps the most universal communications technology we’ve yet invented. It’s because of the same profit motive that drives people crazy when they think about their backward wireless carrier gouging them for another ten bucks.

Take Apple’s iMessage: it’s only designed to work across Apple devices, which is great for those in Apple’s camp but kind of useless to those who don’t have an Apple product. Likewise, Skype, the most well-known and widely used telecom killer, only connects who have signed up for its services or who SkypeOut to, you guessed it, telephone numbers. That’s a huge number (663 million registered accounts as of Dec. 2010, although Skype said last month that only 170 million use the service once a month), but it’s hard to imagine that such a service plagued by growing pains could scale to serve the billions that the phone-number system can accommodate. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Voice does a lot of interesting things but uses the phone number as the heart of its system.

A viable next-generation communications system based around something other than an archaic numbering system can’t be fragmented, which would defeat the whole purpose. It has to address the need for special services attached to emergency calls. And it can’t fall under the control of a single corporation, which even if it was a benevolent overlord would make debates about Microsoft’s power in the 1990s and Google’s power today look quaint.

There’s really only one universal noncommercial form of identity in the Internet world: the e-mail address. You can choose your handle, choose your service provider, and know that messages sent from a Gmail account will reach recipients on Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO). Even Facebook, a closed system by design, allows users to obtain a free e-mail address that those outside of Facebook can use to reach them.

But the e-mail address is hardly a secure form of identity verification. Since everyone knows your e-mail address, keeping the world from reading messages addressed to you requires passwords that can be hard to remember if you’re diligent about security and that could expose your entire online life if you’re not. Even though everyone may know your phone number, when someone places a call to that number or sends a text message, it’s only going to reach you so long as you have your phone in your possession.

The challenges in moving beyond the phone number are similar to the challenges that companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and others involved in social-networking and Web services face trying to build better systems for establishing one’s identity on the Internet. These are messy debates as those involved fight to have their service or technology chosen as the standard by Web companies and Facebook, closing in on 700 million users, has investors salivating over the prospect that it could be that identity standard, a communications hub, and an advertising network all rolled into one.

Few observers of the last decade of mobile and Internet progress doubt that one day wireless carriers are going to be much more in the data-services business than they are the traditional voice business, as voice calls will just shift to the Internet. The carriers themselves also know that: AT&T’s most oft-cited defense of its proposed acquisition of T-Mobile is that the merger will allow it to bring broadband data Internet services to almost the entire U.S. population.

However, breaking free of the phone number is going to require several different industries to get together and design a secure noncommercial mobile identity standard that can connect any device on the planet in milliseconds, and global standards-setting discussions are tedious, fractious, and ripe for abuse.

In other words, don’t hold your breath. There are much more complex factors than wireless industry profits preventing us from having to explain to our grandchildren why 867-5309 was such an important sequence of numbers to Tommy Tutone.