you *need* a web phone. go buy one. right now.

by Neil Verplank (bio) email neil Other articles

    I love phones.  I can remember when I was limited to a single phone, and a single phone number, and the only thing the phone did was make and receive phone calls.  Now, through the magic of technology, and years of R&D from telcos, I have six phone numbers, including home, work, fax, cell, pager and an 800 number.  I’d have more, but I'm in a lull.  If I didn't have so many phones, I have no idea how I'd get in touch with all the customer service people at all my telephone companies.  I ask you:  how would I solve all my telephone billing problems without a telephone?

    To make all our lives even better, phone companies are now offering valuable services as well.  Take the awesome new call blocking service, which stops incoming telemarketing calls "before they ring!"  It's such a time saver for me, I only wish they'd thought of it years ago, even before they started selling my phone number.  The other day, I was using a brand new (land based) A_______ phone, and it has a conference calling button right on it - the power of a button at one’s fingertips.  Now, if I hadn't had a cell phone, there is no way I could have called someone else in the office to explain to me how to use the "conference" button to conference in a very important client.

    I know, I know, you’re thinking, “how can it get any better than this?”  How?  Web phones, that’s how.  By combining the almost awe-inspiring power of text with the otherwise limited ability of a normal cellular phone, the wireless telephone companies are going to rock your world.  This is not just another dumb idea from the telcos trying to make money selling you some useless and impractical technology by running bald-faced lies in the mass-media either.

    Consider:  A brand new laptop costs almost $1,000 dollars, but a web phone is only $500!  And the computer comes with useless, expensive technology you don’t even need, such as a CDROM, a hard drive, and numerous, hard to configure ports, jacks, wires and peripherals.  Spreadsheets for your business?  Your web phone has a calculator.  Storage space?  Why bother – just get on the web phone and look it up on the net – it’s only $.10 a minute.  Can your computer make phone calls?  I think not.  Imagine constantly having to drive home to your land-based PC every time you want to check sports scores, or find out the weather.  The transportation costs alone would be staggering.

    The triumph of technological miniaturization and user interface design is just part and parcel of the web phone’s virtues:  there must be over 255 characters on those tiny little displays (truly astonishing), and the screen is a comfortable, easy-to-read black and white.  Fortunately, no one thought to integrate the color screen from the $70 Gameboy, let alone the scandalously wasteful 65,000 colors of an LCD screen.  I can’t name 65,000 colors – can you?  Where would we be if phone companies talked to their customers?  What if they started designing tools around the voice communications you already use, allowing customers to dictate what they wanted?  It’s too horrible to contemplate.

    Best thing about web phones?  You can be on the web all the time - no more idle chit chat at a bar.  No more casual conversation with friends sitting by the fire - no, siree, you're on the web baby, checking the absolute latest jai-lai sports scores from Bhutan.  Yeah, you're ordering pizza and driving down the road to pick up a movie while entering your credit card number.  You were meant for the fast lane, and you do not have time to be making phone calls to human beings; you are nobody’s fool.

    Often, “surfing the net” implies you have to look at the whole thing.  The entire Internet.  But, prescient as ever, telcos have made this a closed standard, virtually guaranteeing no one in the public domain can create content for your web phone.  This way, the number of websites you can see will be kept small and manageable. You can be almost certain that only your phone company will control the content you see. 

    Don't be fooled by phones that promise to integrate with existing technology.  Imagine how clunky it would be to connect your laptop to your cell phone, and browse the Internet with that.  Or a wireless phone that actually gets through a call on a regular basis (as if there aren't enough people to talk to already?).  Or a cell phone that actually tells you who's calling, instead ringing (and giving you the thrill of finding your phone in your pocket or bag and reading the caller ID so you can call back whoever just called on your new cell phone).  I heard Nortel actually offers this horrible service; one can only hope it won't be available on their web-enabled model.

    Finally (I’ve been saving the best for last of course):  raw, unadulterated speed.  Some of these phones surf the “net” (you'd better sit down) at a blazing 9.6K!!!  That 300 bps modem you got with your Apple II in 1978?  Chuck it.  These web phones are eight, maybe ten times faster, easy.  And there are plans to make these phones even faster!

    A fair word of warning: a lot of people are getting these new web phones, maybe hundreds, and initially, you may not get the full 10K throughput.  There is a chance, however remote, that you might not get a call through in your area.  However, perseverance pays.  I heard someone recently booked an airline ticket using only a web phone, the handy two-color micro-browser, and a needle, in under fifteen minutes.  Everyone else in the meeting was forced to work, or make phone calls, because they didn't have anything to do waiting for the guy on the web phone.  If they'd had a web phone, they could have surfed the net.  Duh.

    To fully understand web phones, you have to look at the strategy behind them; you have to think big.  Imagine (worst case scenario) that you had to go through life with a single number.  Having  a single company responsible for routing all your data traffic.  The next thing you know, you have a new IPV6 address, and everyone in the world will use it to access your web site, email you, call you, fax you AND page you, wherever you are.  Forced to use filters, picking and choosing which data gets through, you might completely eliminate telemarketers.  Can you imagine the horror of having one, centrally managed, web-accessible contact database tied to every phone in your life?!  Imagine some company handing out your public RSA key to all incoming data traffic, encrypting all your communications.  What would the governments do with Echelon?  What would all the people with radio scanners do? 

    How blank life would seem. 

    Fortunately, the telcos have foreseen such a possibility, and have quickly introduced the revolutionary WAP standard.  They are rapidly fragmenting what would otherwise almost certainly be an explosive integration of telecommunications services.  ISP’s all over the country are fighting to provide to telecommunications “services” under the 1996 Telecommunications act, but don’t you worry.  The phone companies are fighting every step of the way.

    Cyberspace is a big place.  Do yourself a favor:  get a web phone, and cut it down to size.


    by Neil Verplank (bio) email neil Other articles