Can we get rid of unknown phone numbers?

For many people like me, the phone system is broken. And it is not all about costs or devices: as Andreas Klinger once said, telephone numbers are a disgrace to our generation.

His main point, one I agree with, is the disconnect between phone numbers and the identity of the people behind them. He says:

I have friends that have three numbers in their signature. US, UK, local-european-country-no-one-knows. This whole system assumes I want to call their cellphones. Which is not true – I want to call them. The people behind that numbers, simcards and devices…

Andreas stresses the need for a means to reach people regardless of where they are, what phone operator they are using or other details that are insignificant from the point of view of the caller.

In the era of email and, now, social networks, phone numbers are a legacy of the old days. Especially since the introduction of personal mobile phones, they often constitute an unnecessary level of abstraction between us and the person we are trying to reach.

As Andreas points out, what modern phones would need is an identity system to abstract phone numbers out of the way, just like DNS does with IP addresses.

While this is a significant problem that needs solving, it would require some infrastructure to be in place, as you can see by looking at the scenarios explored in the post.

However, there is a smaller problem that can actually be addressed with resources that already are in place. And I am sure we all experienced it at least once.

Consider what happens when you get a phone call from a number you don’t know, and you are not able to answer it. Your phone will display an entry in its call log, and it will just list the number and the time of the call. You will likely not have enough information to decide whether or when to return the call.

Email is different, even just the format of an email address, the name@organization pair we are now used to, can be used to communicate something. Just seeing or as a sender can give us an idea about what the message will be about.

Social networks are even better at this: whenever we get a message from someone, we see their name, their avatar picture and some profile information that may help in recognizing them if we already met them, or understand who they are in case we do not know them.

Compared to the previous scenarios, the impersonal string of numbers we see when we get a phone call from someone can be quite annoying, to the point that I know a significant number of people who are not at ease when they need to return a call and do not know who will be at the other end of the line.

Can we fix this?

Modern smartphones (iPhones and my Galaxy Nexus, for example) attempt to provide their users with a bit more information when they receive a call from a number that is not associated to any contact: they display the country or region of the caller under the phone number in the call log.

State of the caller on Android

Seeing this behavior on my Android phone, I started to wonder whether that system could be generalized to provide an even better service.

In my case, the contacts on my phone are integrated with my GMail address book and Google+ circles: whenever I add a new friend, their name shows up among my phone contacts along with their phone number, if they chose to share it.

What I would love to have is a system where, whenever filling in their own Google+ profile, users could choose to allow the people they call to retrieve their profile given their phone number. Whenever the phone of the receiver is about to display their call entry in the log, the device could lookup the phone number on the Google+ directory and retrieve the user profile corresponding to that number. Verified1 owners of a phone number could choose whether they want to give the possibility to lookup their profile given their number to anyone or only to the people they tried to call recently.

I mentioned Android and Google+ because Google’s position in both mobile and social sectors gives them access to all the components needed to have such a system in place. Of course, a solution like this could be implemented virtually by anyone, but it would be a lot more complex to an outsider to build such a system, and the costs would probably exceed the benefits.

If a system like this were to be implemented by a significant number of parties and adopted by enough users, it would probably be another move towards a consistent and healthy approach towards proper identity management.

  1. Verification of the phone numbers is important as it necessary to prevent scams and frauds. ↩︎

Alessandro Bahgat
Software Engineer & Manager

I am an engineer and manager of engineers, I sometimes play with side projects and write about my experiences in my spare time.

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