May 02, 2013

Mobile Data Goes Up, Phone Calls Go Down, Can't Explain That

By the end of last month, Verizon was regularly sending me updates on how close I was to reaching the top of my 4 gigabyte data cap available in the plan I share with my wife. A little over two weeks in, I had used more than two gigabytes, after three weeks a third, and by the end of the billing cycle, I could have hit maximum capacity, had I just left my favorite Spotify playlist on play and asked all my apps from Google Play to update simultaneously.

But I was nowhere near capacity for our shared voice plan. Not by a long shot. In fact, the month saw a record low in our actual voice usage, racking up less than an hour's time over 30 days, which averages down to less than 2 minutes per day, more than enough time to call home, say, "Are the kids fine? Do I need to get anything?" and hang up.

It's unlikely the activity seen in our own home is unusual. Where just a few years ago, one could see passersby talking on their phones as they jostled down the sidewalk, or ringing phones would be commonplace in cafes and restaurants, it seems more people are looking down at their phones to trade updates than picking one up for a quick call. At this point, it's likely most of us don't even know our best friend's phone numbers, but could rattle off a few hundred Twitter handles of mere acquaintances if it came down to it.

The story of how static land lines with inflexible phone numbers were rapidly diminished with mobile phone numbers that stuck with a person from plan to plan, phone to phone and more recently, carrier to carrier, is a well known one. Hotels can no longer expect you to rack up ridiculous phone bills for local calls and family updates, and hope they can instead get you to foot the bill for 24 hours of questionably high speed Internet instead. And the telecoms are no doubt praying that all of the youth addicted to texting stick with SMS and far away from the many different free services that connect people in real time.

When I was on a trip last month to Paris and London, I didn't even make an effort to ensure my phone worked in Europe after I had crossed the Atlantic. Where in years past, walking around with a less than functional phone would be crippling, and worth the extra quid to get a few megabytes and minutes, I replaced all that potential cost with daily Google+ hangouts to see the family face to face, and stuck near WiFi for everything else.

That's not intended to be a plug for Google+ hangouts (although you all know I work at Google and think hangouts are great), but a real clear example where traditional voice seems rather quaint. Instead of a voice relationship and fighting over the phone between my 3 youngsters, I could see them and their expressions, even to the point of making funny faces, from thousands of miles away.

Our phone voice use has never approached our max, and is at a new low.

What I did see, however, especially in London, was the availability of SIM cards with pre-paid contracts that were data only, with no voice attached. It's clear that in a world of apps, our mobile devices aren't expected to be held up against our ears, but in front of our eyes, ready for our hands' next command.

Voice calls now are the refuge of two major parties - the salesmen and the grandmothers, essentially. Receiving a phone call from a number you don't know, or a geography you don't visit is practically guaranteed to be a robocall or somebody wanting your money or your opinion. And grandmas get a pass because they've usually passed the point where they can learn new tricks.

Just like we passed a time where physical media made sense, becoming a clutter in our home, and practically all of us said goodbye to our landlines, I wonder how long it will be until we say goodbye to voice functionality on our phones, except in the event of an emergency. These devices won't cease to be communicators, as our primary point for email, social networking and photography, but voice is practically an also ran on the very devices initially created for that very purpose. It's very interesting to watch.