Technology continues to reshape the way we communicate, and recently that has gotten me thinking about what that might mean for me. What's coming? What's already here? What else is on its way? The last month has seen big news from several different directions, all of which seem (at least to me) to be related. And very exciting...
First, Amazon released their new Kindle. It's smaller, faster, better, and significantly less expensive, but what I find most interesting is that it now has a WebKit browser, and the 3G version gives you free internet access where available. Even if the browsing experience is extremely limited, it's still significant.
Next, Google released integrated calling with Google Voice right from Gmail, which is a nice addition to an already excellent (free!) service. Calls within the US are free, and they're inexpensive worldwide. You can also get a free phone number, making it easy for others to reach you even if they're stuck on old phone technology.
And finally, Apple had their big product announcement recently, which included detailed plans for Face Time, and an extremely functional and powerful iPod Touch, among other things. (I also have some speculation that the new iPod Nano is a signal of possible future phone technology, but I have no evidence of that.) The processor, WiFi performance, and front-facing camera, and Skype potential of the new iPod Touch is significant, especially in light of Face Time.
My own experiments
Over the past few weeks, I've been spending a lot of time playing with online calling technology. For very little money, I was able to get a dedicated phone number linked to my Skype account. And for no money, I got a Google Voice account and linked it to that Skype account. Skype allows me to choose what number is displayed on CallerID when I call or text someone, so I chose my Google Voice number, to keep things simple.
I now have the ability to make calls and throughout the US, and to receive calls throughout the world from the US absolutely for free. But the fun doesn't stop there.
Google Voice allows me to simultaneously forward incoming calls to multiple phone numbers. That means that I can add my office phone or a cell phone and I won't be forced to use Google or Skype to answer all of my calls. Each forwarding phone number can also be assigned hours of operation, and those can be customized for different contact groups!
Using a service like LocalPhone or SkypeToGo, you can also have those calls forwarded to an overseas phone number. So if I go overseas and pick up a cheap phone (or just a SIM) I can continue to receive phone calls at the same phone number, uninterrupted, and without huge roaming fees.
Also, the advent of portable WiFi hubs, such as the 3G MiFi or Sprint's 4G Overdrive hotspot, means you could have phone service via Skype on portable devices like an iPad or an iPod Touch from just about anywhere in the civilized world with very little trouble.
What does the future hold?
I think this is a hint of where the future is going. I foresee a world where everything is internet, and voice technology is dead. I see the "cell phone" being slowly replaced by smart internet devices capable of being used as phones (via Skype or Google Talk, for example) rather than the current paradigm of phones which double as internet devices.
When the iPhone first came out, it was completely revolutionary precisely for that reason. It made communication less of a "phone" experience and more of a "contact" experience. Nowhere was this more evident than in the hiding of the classic "dial pad". Sure, you can still get to the numbers if you need them... but they're not the first thing you see.
I see a time coming soon, where phone numbers will be a thing of the past. To call someone, you'll just click (or "tap") a contact. We already do this now, from our computers, with Skype. Or Facebook. Or Google Talk. And for now, while phone numbers are still necessary, both Skype and Google Voice provide ways to use them.
My next completely "gonzo" experiment!
My service with AT&T has been eternally frustrating. They're always the first to get the cool phones, but they continue to have the worst service. For several years, I've been unable to reliably use my phone at home, and it hasn't been much better at work. So I'm really paying all that money for monthly service just to gain internet access for what little I am able to use it.
I still have a few months left on my contract with AT&T, so I've decided to use it as a breaking-in period. I am going to make an intentional effort to stop using my cell phone both for phone and for internet. I will try to only use it when I'm in the presence of WiFi, and I will try to use Skype rather than the actual phone service.
The fact that it is an actual phone means that I can use it in an emergency, if necessary. But barring extreme circumstances, I will make all attempts to avoid regular "connected" use. That means no more "push" notifications, no more Twitter and Facebook on the go, and no more text messages!
I don't expect this to be terribly difficult. With WiFi access at home and at work, the majority of my day will still be as connected as it ever was. It's only when I'm in transit or when I'm actively going out that I'll be out-of-touch. But with Google Voice's ability to transcribe voicemails and email them to me, I'll know about any missed calls as soon as I'm in range of WiFi.
Moreover, I've been planning to get the new Kindle. I was going to get the WiFi version, but if I can really get free web browsing with the 3G version — even if it's not feature rich — that could be the final piece of the puzzle for situations where I need directions or other connected tasks I might have used my phone to accomplish.
If this experiment is successful, I will switch to an elegant new iPod Touch, which is amazingly thin, and forego the use of a cellphone altogether, performing all my communication only over Skype and/or Google Voice. It would mean a huge monetary savings, both on cost of devices and on monthly service for them.
More importantly, if this experiment is successful, I will gain the freedom of no longer being always available on other people's time. It might mean fewer impromptu meetups with friends, but it will also mean far fewer interruptions, and much more "presence" in life. I think that would be the most valuable gain of all!