Friday, June 20, 2008

There's No Directory of Cellphone Numbers, And Perhaps There Never Will Be One

In the last six months of 2007, a Centers for Disease Control survey found 18% of U.S. households don't have a landline -- up from 5% in the same period four years earlier. And, as discussed in this Real Time from last month, digging into the survey by age shows the decline of the landline in stark terms: 34.5% of adults aged 25-29 live in wireless-only households.

But as the landline slides toward extinction, a question: In a cellular-dominated world, how will we find a phone number for someone we don't know?

There's no white pages for cellphone numbers, and it doesn't seem likely that there'll be one soon. A few years ago, the cellphone industry's main trade group hired a company to assemble such a directory, but the effort collapsed after some carriers lobbied against it and surveys showed a majority of customers didn't want it. Subsequent efforts have fared little better: Earlier this year, a company called Intelius shuttered an online directory of 90 million mobile numbers amid anger from cellphone users and threats from Verizon. (Intelius -- not Intellius, as I had it earlier -- still offers a reverse-lookup service, for a fee.)

In backpedaling, Intelius said that "it's clear the market is still not ready." But it may never be.

Would you miss the white pages if they vanished tomorrow? In an ideal world, how would we find contact information for people we don't know? Join a discussion with me and other Online Journal readers.

The principal reason there's no cellphone directory is simple: We don't want one. The cellphone began as an extension of the landline, and the last thing we wanted (particularly as the ones paying for the calls) was telemarketers and other landline nuisances following us to it. Now, more and more users (particularly younger ones) see the cellphone not as an adjunct to the landline, but as a replacement.

But at least so far, the wireless-only trend hasn't prompted many people to reconsider and decide we really do need a cellphone directory after all. And I don't think that will change.

Why not? Because in a number of important ways, the cellphone is more of a break with traditional telephone service than it is an evolution of it. And those differences will only become more apparent in the coming years.

The biggest reason wireless-only adults don't need a directory is that they're reachable in other ways -- through their homepages, blogs, MySpace and Facebook outposts and of course through their email. Twenty years ago, the telephone was the only practical way of reaching someone -- and in that situation, a directory of telephone users was obviously crucial. Now, the phone is just one method in a range of communications options, and often it's not the best one. (As also discussed last month -- I've had phones on the brain.) It seems like having a phone in our pocket would make it a more important device, but the rise of other ways of communicating have made that phone far less important.

Less important in terms of phone functions, at least -- for as phones get smarter, they become less and less like the phones we grew up with. We're more likely to use them for text messaging or accessing our email, reserving voice calls for friends, family members and important colleagues -- another reason fewer and fewer people need our number. And new services allow us to sort and direct incoming calls as if they were emails -- witness the Google-owned GrandCentral, which gives you a single phone number from which calls are directed to a range of other numbers, whether it's your home phone, work phone, cellphone or some voice-mail box you'll regard like your spam folder on your email.

I don't know if GrandCentral itself will fly or die, but its approach seems likely to succeed: Pretty soon most of us will have a single point of contact, used by people we don't know to communicate with us in whatever way we collectively deem appropriate. And we'll control how and when they do so -- just as we increasingly control how and when we shop, read the news or watch TV. Once we've achieved this level of control, perhaps a directory of these single points of contact will emerge. But until then, more and more of us will do just fine without the old white pages.

That will arouse uneasy feelings that technology has once again done away with something we assumed was eternal -- the phone books that arrived once a year, the ones we sat on as kids at the dinner table, are shrinking as fewer and fewer people bother to be listed in them. Those of us who remember looking ourselves up in the white pages and thinking that now we belong to a place may lament -- not for the first time -- that our real-world communities are becoming more fragmented as people spend time in online communities of their own choosing instead.

But as with so many technological shifts, these vague feelings of loss won't stop us from changing. As the digital world matures, one of its great themes is the ability it gives us to channel information for consumption at a time and via a method of our choosing. The only surprise would be if phones weren't swept up in that too.

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