January 3, 2013

Don’t Look Now, But Facebook is Reinventing the Phone


A phone number doesn’t represent you. For one, it’s a random string of digits. It’s not native to a person’s character, but merely given. Unless your name’s Jenny or you have a ten figure name made strictly out of numbers, a phone number is disjointedly attached to you. A phone number isn’t you: it doesn’t represent or define you.  And yet, the phone number continues to exist in a world where personalization and representation play in the forefront of people’s lives through social media.

The phone number is outdated, and finally a major technology company is offering a solution. Facebook is reinventing the phone.


Within a past couple of days, Facebook’s has made some intriguing changes to Facebook’s messaging system­. For the first time, Facebook is monetizing a new feature, allowing Facebook users to send messages to non-Facebook friends for one dollar. Essentially, the change opens up your inbox for a price. Though there’s a toggle that enables stricter filtering, many users denounced the move as a blatant money grab for the violation of user’s privacy.

The other move, which we reported on today, is integrating voice features with the service. Experiencing a limited roll out in Canada, Facebook is adding free voice calls and voicemail to messaging. Though these features compete directly with big name players like Skype and Google Voice, I suspect the real target is something different altogether: the phone number.

By opening messages to nearly anyone and allowing for voice calls, Facebook has reinvented the phone number. Instead of a 10 digit code to contact someone, Facebook is replacing an outdated system with names to call people. There’s no more middle man: you are the phone number.



VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is nothing new. A staple of products like Skype and Google Voice, VOIP allows for phone calls to be made over the internet to existing landlines and mobile phones. Google Voice, especially, is noted for being a versatile free solution for internet calling. However, Google’s solution still depends on archaic phone numbers to talk to people and to leave them messages. Facebook changed the game.

With a unique and personal identifier, Facebook is simplifying the phone by brushing past phones numbers to reveal what’s more important: the people behind the unsightly codes.  It’s a lofty goal, upending an established technology Not many can do it, and even major names like Skype have yet to truly make an impact on phones. But there’s one unique quality that Facebook has that other’s don’t: ubiquity.

If done right, voice calling is almost guaranteed to attract attention from Facebook’s users in a way that existing VoIP services like Google Voice can’t. While both services stand to offer free calling (in Canada and the US), Facebook has become a ubiquitous standard in connecting with friends. Google Voice, on the other hand, has not. Facebook has the sheer manpower to make VOIP a mainstream alternative to the phone number.

Though VOIP calling isn’t the be-all, end-all solution to the solution for fixing the phone number, mobile integration will be the impetus to change. Used over a data plan or in areas with Wi-Fi, Facebook is offering a strong play to replace phone numbers. Should voice calling be successful, there’s little stopping Facebook from removing the $1 fee for non-friends and allowing their solution to be unrestricted and open for all.

The pieces are set in place. Facebook is the messaging hub, the image sharer, and the social standard. Now?  Add phone number to the list.

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