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Friday, May 11, 2012

Phone number as OTT identifier - a problem in the making?

I got an SMS this morning from a business contact - actually a client from an operator who came to the Telco-OTT workshop a couple of weeks ago. It was an invitation to download TU Me, the new Telefonica VoIP and messaging app, sent from within the app itself.

But as it happens, I've already got the app on my phone. But what I don't have on my phone is this person's phone number. So I can't connect to them. And so TU Me didn't realise we already knew each other.

This got me thinking. A lot of the more successful recent OTT apps (whether Telco-OTT or Internet-OTT) have used the contact list and people's phone numbers as easy ways to make connections. Viber and WhatsApp both do this. There's been a bit of a privacy outcry about such apps uploading your contacts to the cloud, but newer ones like TU Me seem to have smoothed peoples' fears and claim that they only use the data to find other contacts.

In many ways, this is a good thing. It helps automate the process of "virality", by seeing which other app users have your phone number, and vice-versa, in their phone books. Using the number gets around random spellings and nicknames - if you have 07111 222333 down as "Johnny Boy" it doesn't matter, as long as Jonathon / John / Jack / Jon has your number in his phonebook too. It also avoids the complexity of issuing and managing a separate ID and login (eg I'm @disruptivedean on Twitter, although I use my real name on LinkedIn and Quora).

But phonebook-driven virality only gets you so far. Traditionally, I would have had all my contacts replicated in my handset, including the client I mentioned at the start. But I don't. I only have people that I actually want to phone or SMS on a regular basis. I don't "add contact" in my Outlook and sync everyone to my phone. I don't use vCard. I only have about 50% of my Facebook friends, maybe 10% of my LinkedIn contacts and 1% of my Twitter followers' phone numbers on my phone.

I don't want 1000+ people in my handset phonebook. In my head, the phonebook is for certain use-cases - eg chats with friends and family, arranging meetings with regular clients and business contacts (often via SMS), some businesses I need to call frequently (accountants, bank etc) and a bunch of "legacy" numbers I ought to delete. I don't want to scroll past dozens of acquaintances that I'll never actually contact "by phone". I also want to reduce the risk of embarrassing mistakes, like accidentally mis-keying and sending personal texts to work contacts.

I've got plenty of good business and personal contacts I have no intention of saving in my phonebook, because I know I'll likely never phone them. In particular, I don't bother with most international numbers as usually I'll only call at specific times - and then I'll use Skype from my PC (or occasionally my handset). Or if I do suddenly need to call for some reason, I'll probably use Outlook to find an old email from them, and just dial the number in the footer. And then not save the number afterwards.

Now some people are probably different. They'll use various forms of syncing, and have a single contact list. Good for them, but not for me. I guess my client has my number in my phone for this reason - or perhaps he put it in his contact-list pre-emptively in case he got lost or delayed on the way to the Telco-OTT workshop. I prefer maintaining multiple independent lists - especially keeping work & personal contacts about 80% separate. I also use different names / pseudonyms, and avoid things like Android because I don't want everything converged.

Which brings me back to OTT apps like TUMe and WhatsApp and Viber. There may well be instances where I do want to connect with people like my client on these tools. They might evolve to have certain use-cases that go beyond my normal use of telephony and SMS, for example being good for occasional contacts, IM chats or image-sharing.

But if I'm forced to use a phone number as an identifier - and enter it in my main "master" phonebook" - then I simply won't do that.

I think that using the number is a neat way to get early "virality" - Viber proves this. But it runs into a ceiling after a while. Not only that, but many PC/tablet-based users don't want to associate a phone number with a given messaging or social account. No matter how many times Facebook and Google try to take my mobile number "for backup purposes", I tell them to get lost.

This is true for things like RCSe as well - I remember a Middle Eastern operator ask a question at a conference a few months ago, wondering if it was possible to have a separate ID (eg an email address or a BBM-style PIN) for the account, as users in his region are wary of sharing phone numbers but may still want to IM. There's a ton of social, cultural and psychological factors at play here around phone numbers.

I think there's a reason that the most successful OTT services such as Facebook, Skype, BBM, Twitter and others have managed to scale so well - unique IDs. They have also been able to use third-party directories - phone contact lists, Gmail and Yahoo and AOL accounts etc - to help find contacts, and selectively invite people to become friends/contacts on the new system.

As our use of telephony and SMS diminishes, one of the side-effects will be a parallel fall in the value and usefulness of the phone number. Add in multiple numbers, churn, portability, "temporary numbers" and other factors and it gets worse still. OTT players (Internet or Telco) who use the directory & E164 identifiers will get a short-term quick win, but face an uncertain future if they depend on a source of identity that is sliding gradually into irrelevance.

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