Why do we need phones?

With news this morning about how BT are looking to acquire EE, I’ve been having conversations with a few people recently about the point of telephones in this day and age. There’s an awful lot of assumption and learned behaviour associated with these devices, and the continued existence of telephones (desk-based ones in particular) is today primarily a psychological thing as much as any deep business requirement.

I’ve written in the past about how we learn to do things in certain ways, even when those ways are outdated or (even) plain wrong – whether it be the preference for people to use SMS over email when running late for an appointment, how many people won’t send an SMS message to a number that doesn’t look like a mobile number, or even the way in which many people write their phone number (oh, for the love of God, if you put (0) in your phone number on your email signature, read that article and sort it out).

All of this learned behaviour, often as a result of misinterpretation or misinformation, and yet all forming barriers to how we might implement change.

I was speaking recently to a client who are looking to introduce hotdesking environments to much of their office space, and also want to replace their existing “landline” telephone system. I do wonder these days why one would bother, especially when IP-based “traditional” telephony systems are so chuffing expensive. If you abstract out the idea of voice communication from the network on which it is delivered, I can happily “do voice” on my mobile, on Skype, on Google Hangouts… and all of those three services allow me to call out to traditional voice lines too. But with email and instant messaging and Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and collaborative documents and and and… well, I just don’t make quite as many voice calls as I used to (and it’s not just me).

In fact, unless you are visiting a customer contact centre, one of the striking things I find in modern open-plan offices is how few people are on the phone. And how even fewer use the expensive IP deskphone if one is available.

In our mobile world, the idea of a geographically-fixed telephone is increasingly anathematic. But maybe it’s that fixed nature that makes them still so popular… in conversation yesterday a colleague mentioned research he had seen that seemed to indicate that we have a preference for calling fixed-line numbers because we find it easier to imagine where the person we are calling is. It’s cognitively easier to process. An interesting proposition.

Meanwhile we seem to be on the verge of a new mega-telco with the BT/EE merger. It’s been the case for years that fixed-line telephone companies have known that fixed-line telephones won’t be a valuable market for ever. It’s why the likes of BT have bought their way into the world of television (and possibly also why you can’t easily buy domestic broadband without a telephone line).  Diversifying into “triple plays” and “quadrupal plays” (telephone, broadband, TV and mobile) is the accepted way of the industry.

But ultimately, bundling services that sit on top of networks seems to me to be a mid-term kludge that won’t last for ever. In fixed-line, there is effectively one major provider (BT OpenReach) who provide the network for others to provide services on top. I’ve spoken with people in the mobile industry who predict similar over time in that world. The services themselves, rather than the network is where the value is – and today much of the selling of those telecoms services relies on people making assumptions about their own use of technology (say, “I must have a phone”) that increasingly are out of step with their actual behaviours. Interesting times are ahead…

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