We’re all familiar with this line – in a world where cellphones were ubiquitous, Neo had to find a landline phone cut through the Matrix software and find a way out. But today even the landlines are running on software, and this revolution alone is already changing our social habits.
50 years ago, you used a phone to connect two distant places together. If you were going to your aunt’s house for the weekend, you left word that you could be reached at her house and it’s corresponding telephone number. And when you called her house, proper phone etiquette meant that you said “Hello may I please speak with Prasid?” before she handed the phone over to me. Those days are over. In this brave new unwired world, we’ve realized that phones today no longer connect you to a particular location, but instead connect you directly with a person, wherever they are. And Microsoft’s new stake in the ground is Unified Communications Server. With Unified Communcations, you can be in Outlook and see just by clicking on my name in an email whether I’m available, in a meeting, and when I’m going to be free. You can open up IM, or dial my number on your “land line phone,” or hell, you can dial my number on your VOIP Communicator with a bluetooth headset, or, even crazier, you can dial my number on your cellphone , all off your computer, directly out of OUtlook & Communicator.
Now, if you want to stop trying to visualize it, come over to my workstation because that’s what I’m doing right now. The key is that PBX phone lines are rigid, hard-wired. The pace of evolution is snail-like – last week I got a flyer from Comcast to add a landline, and they marketed it saying “now for the very first time you can get CallerID, Call-Waiting, and a digital voicemail box” – and I’m thinking the digital voicemail box is an interesting idea, but we’ve had cellphone voicemail for a decade and now and having the same thing for the landline is not particularly revolutionary. The brilliance of Unified Communications is that once you put the phone system onto software, the possibilities are limitless. If you leave me a voicemail at work I get it as an email message within my Outlook email Inbox – no need to dial-into a voicemail system or buy a separate answering machine. And they show up in a little Windows Media player widget inside an email, letting me fast-forward to the part where you left some important fact or your call back number. I can even dial-into the Exchange email server when I don’t have internet and tell it (voice recognition software has come a long way in the past few yrs) to read me an email then tell it to cancel a meeting or notify attendees that I’m running 15 minutes late. How about this one: I can see in Outlook that you’re current status is free, I can dial your number through the computer and have my landline connect to yours, and then, 5 minutes into our conversation, I can switch the call to my cell. My PC will call my cellphone, conference it in, and in 5 seconds I’ll pick up my cell, drop my landline, and continue our convo while walking out the door – and you’ll have no idea.
But you don’t need to work at Microsoft or have some high-tech unified communications server to experience this. Services like GrandCentral mean that anyone can get a phone number & voicemail box, and a few weeks ago for the first time I saw that Google is now letting you leave voicemails in someone’s email inbox. Skype, despite setbacks, is still one of eBay’s biggest growing businesses, and the iPhone gives you visual voicemail so you don’t have to go through 5 saved messages to get to the last one you really want to listen to.
Today, If you’re between the ages of 18 & 26, you probably don’t have a home number. In fact, I finally got one simply because I work from home so often and I would burn through my 900 minutes/month cellphone plan in about a week. But I managed to get through 4 years of college without ever using a landline. And I’m not alone. Comcast & others are gaining traction with bundles like the Triple Play precisely because the phone is no longer something essential, but is just another thing that I might get. In this brave new world, when Wikipedia is a better resource than an Encyclopedia and Yelp is infinitely better than Yellow Pages for finding good thai takeout, more and more staples of daily life are starting to look obsolete. The phone I bought to go with my new landline has an answeing machine – but I’ve never checked the messages, and no one has this number. The other day I threw away my yellow pages. Never even opened them. Just took two giant shrink-wrapped mounds of dead tree and threw them into the recycling bin downstairs. Even the phone itself is starting to be an anachronism. I remember calling people one at a time and rounding up the crew to get dinner. Nowadays I rarely make individual calls. It’s all texting. And my grandmother’s house? Nowadays I wouldn’t even bother giving you her number, let alone you actually bothering to say “hello may I please speak with Prasid.” You won’t need to know that I’m at her house, I won’t need to say “this is Prasid.” It will just work.
These tiny yet fundamental changes are having profound impacts on our social habits. But they are just the beginning. Once all telephony is built on software, imagine the innovation that will happen next.