Dialing John Smith
We must break our psychological ties to the PSTN. Why are we dialing numbers instead of trying to reach people?01-Jul-2004
Updated: 21-Oct-2004

This is a copy of my July/August 2004 VON Magazine Column

AltWe must break our psychological ties to the PSTN.

There are many John Smiths in the United States. You don’t expect that you can simply dial 1-555-John-Smith and reach the correct John Smith. Sometimes you can dial 1-555-CompanyName. It’s a nice gimmick but we don’t expect it to work. You lookup the number in a phone book and then dial it. If you expect to use it again you write it down in your personal address book.

These days you don’t really lookup the phone number in the one universal phone book. The phone book itself, be it the paper version or online, is becoming increasingly irrelevant as cell phones become dominant. Cell phones (and VoIP phones) aren’t listed despite attempts to create such listings. One reason is that the lack of a directory listing is a feature–you have some control over who can call you.

Cell phones raise other issues. When you are driving, it’s hard to lookup a phone number, remember it and then dial it. We’ve seen some improvement–the information services now dial the calls for you but there isn’t a protocol for you to record the number in your own phone book. So each time you need to work to make sure you get the phone number for the right John Smith. It’s actually more complicated–which number do you want for John Smith? There are mobile (or cell phone) numbers, land lines, fax numbers and the numbers change over time.

Solutions like keeping a phone number for life sound good but don’t deal with the reality of having phone numbers for various purposes such as for a particular business or task. Turns out that the phone number itself is a very useful tool for controlling our availability.

Perhaps if the phone number were much longer–too long for phone spammers to call every number, then you could indeed use the phone number to control access to your attention. Since there is no shortage of integers you can use a different phone number for each person–you can then tell who is calling by the number they use to reach you!

It’s a sound idea but not feasible as long as we consider a phone number to be a routing path through a series of switches. This assumption is deeply embedded within the PSTN. The North American Numbering Plan (NANP) even assumes that numbers are exactly 10 digits. Actually, 11 digits if you include the leading 1- which is used within North America to “escape to regional switching” and from outside the use happens to be the same as the country code. Even though the switching is all electronic, these legacy assumptions are preserved. After all, we still say dial even after the planned forty-year transition to using a keypad (Touch Tone®). People accept these properties as natural even though they are purely accidental properties of history. For example, the “1” was available because it prevented noise on the line from accidentally placing a phone call.

An IP address is sort of like a phone number. You just “dial’ 192.198.0.1 to get to a web site. OK, this time we don’t call it “dialing” though it’s no different from keying in a phone number. Of course we don’t normally use the number itself, we just type in a web site name such as http://www.vonmag.com. VonMag? On the Web we expect to be able to say http://www.JohnSmith.com. We also know we can’t. Just as people still have the illusion of a phone book, they have the illusion of typing a name with .com. In both cases they maintain cognitive dissonance by actually looking up the site using a search engine. The better approach for both phone numbers and sites is to “just ask” people for their phone number and site names.

For VoIP, we are seeing some experiments in private directories on SIP servers with some interconnections and other P2P directories for instant messaging services that have their own VoIP communities.

Yet, our image of a VoIP phone is still a throwback to the old 10 digit rotary phone. The major improvement is the keypad.

So why do I see new phones, especially 802.11 phones with keypads that not only preserve the old idea of dialing a number, but demand that I go through contortions to send text messages? As I’ve written before, the fixation on PSTN emulation is holding back the real benefits of taking telephone to the edge–the edge of the network, that is. The PSTN will soon be gone, let’s not tie ourselves to sinking switches.