By Michael Fisher | November 2, 2012 4:33 PM
The venerable phone number has been around, in some form or another, for over a century. Beginning as short two- or three-digit codes given orally to an operator or entered via turns of a wall telephone’s crank, phone numbers have grown to lengthy proportions over a century of exploding growth in person-to-person calling. Today, dialing an old friend (or saving the “digits” of a new friend) in America means entering a string of numbers at least ten digits long. Depending on factors like region and international dialing code, numbers can be even longer.
That’s a lot of numerals to keep in a noggin, which is why mobile phones have featured address books for the past decade or so. That’s reduced writing on cocktail napkins at bars by about 900% , but it’s no help if you don’t have your device handy, or if the person giving you the number is the person on the other side of the call. That’s part of the reason phone numbers started out much shorter, and were abbreviated and assigned based on province when lengthened, as in “Tinseltown-488.” Ten digits are just too many to reliably remember for most people.
A service called StarStarMe, from a company called Zoove, aims to change that. Courtesy of a Sprint partnership announced last month, the $3-per-month feature replaces your clunky ten-digit phone number with a special star-based code anywhere from five to nine characters in length. Instead of “617-867-5309,” for example, a Sprint customer named Jennifer could go by “**JENNY.”
As you can see, the replacement of numbers with letters is somewhat illusory; the lettered phrase is still spelled out by a numeric key sequence. So you still have a number of sorts, but it’s easier to remember for the same reason “1-800-FLOWERS” is more memorable than “1-800-356-9377.” The benefit to this is that callers don’t necessarily need to be Sprint customers to call you at your “**” number; calls from all four major wireless carriers are supported, and callers don’t need to use a StarStar app to ring you up. That’s fortunate, considering the prevalence of “coming soon” holes in the service’s feature lineup.
There are other shortcomings to this young service: according to Zoove, calls from landlines aren’t supported, and people can’t yet send SMS messages to StarStarMe numbers. Considering the waning importance of the voice call, that’s a big feature gap. Fortunately, the StarStarMe service doesn’t completely replace your phone number; you can still give out your ten digits to whomever you like and your phone will take their calls and texts as well as it ever has. But that’s hardly a good user experience, and it’s one we imagine Zoove will be most keen on fixing.
Despite these limitations, the appeal of such a service is easy to understand. It’s a lot like the draw of vanity phone numbers, which wireless carriers have for the most part stopped offering, but which are still available through third-party call-forwarding solutions like Google Voice. And there’s something deeper that springs to mind when you think about changing as ancient and rooted a concept as a telephone number. To those uncomfortable with change, as well as industry players whose bottom lines depend on maintaining the status quo, the idea may seem frightening. But to those tired of maintaining many disparate identities across many communications media, the idea of a single, unified point of contact is alluring.
Imagine a world where you don’t have to juggle all of your communications identities. Because of my line of work, I’m probably a big more connected than most, but just off the top of my head, here’s just a handful of my multitude of services on which I have a screenname, number, or “handle,” and I bet we share at least a few of these in common:
- Google Voice
- Traditional wireless phone number
- Pocketnow email
- Facebook ID
- Twitter account (multiple)
- Yahoo Messenger
- Windows Live Messenger
I’m not saying all of these need to be combined; Facebook in particular has an annoying habit of assuming all people want all of their online identities combined, with no additional manifestations or screen names, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t want all of my Twitter posts to be indexed by Facebook, nor do I want my Skype message traffic intermingling with my GTalk messages; separate identities are handy for isolating worlds that should in fact be separate. But I, and I think others, would welcome some consolidation. Particularly if that means ditching the longest, least-customizable, and hardest-to-remember of the bunch: the phone number.
To be clear: that’s not what StarStarMe is, nor what it claims to be. But StarStarMe is one of the first large-scale undertakings that brings us anywhere even close to such a future. It’s important not because of what it does today, but what it promises for tomorrow. It’s a product from a company that’s chosen to think differently about what’s alterable and what’s not. As a result the telephone number, that stalwart of telecommunications, no longer seems as concrete as it used to. And getting there took the cooperation of a wireless carrier– not a tiny MVNO with upstart aspirations, but a telecom giant with roots stretching back over a hundred years. If change that surprising is still possible in the mobile space, it means there’s still hope for a streamlined future even as our communications world grows ever more complex.
In its current state, StarStarMe isn’t something I’d pay $3 a month for, but its concept carries potential that makes me hopeful for a brighter future in communications. That’s why I’ll be keeping an eye on it in the coming months – and why you should, too.