The perfect murder: How Facebook will kill the phone as we know it

As the founder of a startup, I am probably the last person you’d expect to tell you that scale matters. And to be sure, there’s plenty of innovation coming from small, nimble companies that nonetheless are able to disrupt huge markets.
However, with Facebook’s recent addition of voice calling to its Messenger app, the company is poised to demonstrate to the mobile industry the benefits – and power – of scale, first hand. And in what can only be described as the perfect murder, Facebook is now in a position to effectively kill the traditional telephone, starting with the phone number.

How it could work

The implementation of Facebook’s voice features are straightforward yet unique: You make a call by tapping a name, not a number, a username, or any other type of identifier. You’re calling a social connection. That in itself is not shocking, but Facebook can go even further. Its database already contains the phone number of tens of millions of people. (For fun, just type a friend’s phone number in the Facebook search bar, and you’ll likely see their profile pop up instantly.)
This means it could offer streamlined interoperability with existing phone networks in a way that a company like Skype, Viber, Whatsapp — or smaller voice calling startups — can’t so easily manage. Further, all the pages you “like” on Facebook have numbers connected to them, so calling a business is just as simple and at-hand as calling a friend. In the near future then, you will call a business via Facebook on the basis of a friend’s request or a like. No more unwanted calls. No more Yellow Pages. No more looking up a phone number you can’t remember. Just a connection.

What of the gatekeepers?

The real question is how existing gatekeepers of the mobile industry – namely phone carriers and manufacturers – will respond to this apparent threat to their apparent core business. The first, familiar route is to stick to their guns. Put up a blockade, offer low-level crippled integration, or just try to ignore it and hope it just goes away.
Or, they could embrace the disruption with open arms. Carriers need to realize that as the unlimited plan dies, there’s huge opportunity in sending more and more communication over a pay-per-use data line. (They just need to bill their customers in a transparent way.)
This second option would also include supporting Facebook’s interoperability with normal phone numbers. That means you’d be able to call grandma via Facebook whether or not she even has a Facebook account (or even knows what it is) – her old landline will ring just as easily. And when grandma calls you, your Facebook app picks up the call, using number forwarding that’s comparable to Google Voice.
Manufacturers could offer Facebook deeper integration as well. Currently VoIP calls on your iPhone don’t feel like a normal phone call, but they could if Apple were to allow Facebook to control or mimic the iPhone’s Phone app. (While that might sound impossible, don’t forget that Facebook is already integrated in the Contacts app – it is already on the iOS platform in a major way.) And Android is already giving Skype and other VoIP apps ways to generate an incoming call on a phone without sending an often overlooked push notification. Apple can go this route as well.

And now, the future

It’s safe to assume that Facebook is deep in talks already with operators and manufacturers to create a partnership that benefits all of them. To date though, even major VoIP companies like Skype have been unsuccessful in pulling this off. Facebook has a scale that even Skype needed at one point to reach enough people for VoIP calling to become ubiquitous. It won’t stop with this recent addition to the Messenger app. There’s too much for the company to win. (Yes, that includes blocking competitors.)
That Facebook phone you keep hearing about? I believe it’s an app. Sure, it could pull a Google Chrome and try and completely replace a broken platform with its own, but it doesn’t need to – its scale forces partners to listen. Facebook can kill the phone as we know it simply by rebuilding it as an app. It can completely replace Messenger, and it won’t have the voice call option as hidden as it is right now.
It will allow you to communicate through text, voice, and ultimately even video chat. It will use data, lots of it, and carriers might even learn to enjoy billing you for that on a pay-per-use basis. It will work over Wi-Fi too, which will come in handy as 4G LTE networks become more widespread. It will improve the quality of your call in the same way the CD improved the quality of your record collection.
And, by using a huge database of phone numbers, it will even let you call keep in touch with anyone stuck using that dated technology. “Grandma? This is Robert! I’m calling you on Facebook. No, it’s not a phone… .”
Disclosure: One of Karma’s minority investors is currently employed by Facebook, as a designer for products unrelated to this story.
Robert Gaal is co-founder of mobile data startup Karma. Follow him on Twitter @robertgaal
Photo courtesy of bluefish/