One ring to rule them all?


In the last couple of weeks there have been several announcements about phones and phone numbers. Some of them appear to point in rather different directions. Various carrier solutions are aimed at the idea of a single phone number ringing multiple different devices, at the same time a start up, Burner, is doing what seems to be the opposite, having multiple phone numbers link to a singe device (and from there letting you “burn” numbers, so you can cut yourself off from that Craigslist posting, Tinder encounter etc.). At the same time Google has purchased an RCS (Rich Communications Services) business, allowing them perhaps to add more intelligent routing capability to their Google Voice services.  All of this points, rather improbably at some level, to a long life for the phone number.

Carriers and IoT
The announcements by ATT, Sprint, and T Mobile are about a single number ringing multiple devices. It appears that this is most focused on IoT scenarios- as more and more devices are connected to “the network” then clearly it makes sense to be able to address them. 

It’s worth questioning whether the currently wireless service providers are the right service providers for IoT solutions. Managing a single customer relationship and a single device is very different from a family and 25-50 distinct “things” to be communicated with, and the fact we still have a robust ecosystem of Mobile Device Management players (e.g. AirWatch, Good) suggest that there is a lot of enterprise telephony still to be captured by carriers (or not) never mind every robot in a factory.

Mom- what’s MPOP?
Why is this fairly simple idea new, and how hard is it to execute? Multiple Points of Presence (MPOP, the ability to send a call addressed to one device/person to more than one end point) in communications systems usually implies a server or similar capability in the cloud. That has to be the first delivery point of the message/call, which then in turn routes the incoming message to one or more devices. That secondary delivery is being managed by someone who is not always as expert at message delivery, or who is trying to do something more complicated (and edge-case prone) than simply make sure a call ends up in one and exactly one place.

Anyone who has ever logged onto a communications service on a device they haven’t used for a while to see a old unseen message pop in as new is experiencing the downside of poorly implemented versions of this approach.

Software and smarter numbers?
Burner is taking the opposite approach. They are offering multiple temporary numbers which map to a single physical device. The value proposition of burnable numbers is fairly clear, and removes some of the queasy feeling you get as you look at a form where the only possible next step is a call from a pushy sales person, or robocalls about your credit card balance.

Burner’s most recent announcements are an extension of their idea of single burnable numbers. By imagining the phone number as a platform, they are looking to integrate apps like Dropbox and Evernote with a managed phone number, allowing automated customer service and similar capabilities.

Google’s acquisition of Jibe Mobile, an RCS based messaging company, also speaks to the resilience of the carrier centric approach here, and to the value of bringing software thinking to the routing and handling of messages. RCS is usually seen as the “carriers’ response to OTT and other rich messaging,” and is touted as a potential replacement for SMS. It does allow some freedom from phone numbers, but is ultimately more about making complex communications capabilities usable (like escalating seamlessly from instant message to calls, or transferring a session from device to device).

I’m not dead yet!
So whether it’s many devices having the same number, or one device having multiple numbers, in the short term it seems like we have some life left in phone numbers (despite many attempts to declare them already dead). In the medium and longer term it is going to be interesting to see who wins in this space, and whether the capabilities developed for a numbered world will transfer to a broader set of solutions, or be be siloed. Just as IPv4 failed to scale to the number of devices connected to the internet, it’s hard to see how phone numbers do that for IoT. Phone numbers will not have a clear and glorious death – perhaps like the fax and telex, they will be with us until we wake up one day and realize they have gone.

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