Biz Vision: Phone Numbers are Archaic

I’m surprised more people haven’t seen the insight in Nikhyl Singhal’s post. Back in August of 2010, he wrote the controversial post “Phone Numbers Are Dead, They Just Don’t Know It Yet” on TechCrunch. I say “controversial” because most of the commenters attacked his article. Not that TechCrunch’s comments are really that intelligent; sometimes far from it. The overwhelming criticism was still startling though.

In his article, Singhal asserts that phone numbers will go away because of these facts:

  1. No control. Anyone can dial your 10 digits, including your ex-girlfriend, a political campaign worker, or a solicitor. Unlisted numbers, Caller ID and do-not-call lists all tried to solve this problem, but these solutions still don’t prevent unwanted calls.
  2. Phone numbers are tied to a device, not to you. Everyone has multiple numbers, yet your home line is shared, leaving callers guessing the best way to reach you.
  3. User experience is very limited. The phone was designed as a utility—dial a number, have a conversation. It’s remained this way since its inception. It’s not optimized for other experiences, which is why voicemail and conference calls are tedious, and why checking flight status is worse than a root canal.

He sees them being replaced with social networks such as Facebook. “If given a choice between Ma Bell and Zuckerbell as our operator, we should choose Zuck,” he writes.

Perhaps he came across too “sensationalistic” as one commenter criticized. Though I agree with Singhal’s prediction, I would frame it differently. Here is the core reason why I believe phone numbers will lose their utility:

Phone numbers are a poor unique identifier

This seemingly random string of numbers is meant to represent you – or specifically, one of your devices, as Singhal points out. It is a holdover from the telecommunications industry and is a viable solution if you:

  1. only need to call a handful of people often
  2. those people don’t change their numbers often

The cognitive load of a handful of numbers is adequate for some people. However, many people need to be in contact with a wider number. And many change their numbers several times in their lifetime.

If you’ve ever kept a manual phonebook, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Ever try calling an old friend, only to discover their number has been disconnected? That’s what I mean.

I don’t know if Facebook is the appropriate solution, but conceptually, there is a definite need for a way to uniquely identify a person, so he/she can be contacted by friends easily. What are some other ways to uniquely identify a person?

Unique identifier alternatives

There are quite a few ways to uniquely identify a person:

  • Real name
  • Username
  • Email address
  • OpenID
  • Social security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Passport
  • License plate number
  • Fingerprints
  • DNA

Real name

A name is the simplest real-world identifier. That’s how you identify your friends & family in a crowded room. There’s more here too, which I’ll get to after I go over the others.

Username & email address

Usernames & email addresses are both are common in the Internet. They are used on social media sites, community forums, instant messengers, etc. They are not a great solution, however, because they have limited namespaces.

For instance, there can only be one person who uses the username “mikelee.” This leads to usernames like “mikelee13″ and “mikelee2010.” The meaningfulness of “mikelee12345″ is small. Did you mean to contact “mikelee12345″ or “mikelee12346?” Same goes for email addresses too.

And, for phone numbers as well. New area codes are created all the time to address the growing population, but conceivably, we will run out of available numbers one day. That’s a huge, obvious problem, if you ask me.

Usernames & email addresses have the benefit of nearly unlimited lengths, while phone numbers are limited. That’s a slight advantage with the former two, but because it’s easier to remember shorter identifiers, namespace conflicts still exist. Long identifiers aren’t just more difficult to remember, they are more difficult to display too. Imagine trying to display “mikelee-from-newyork-now-in-sanfrancisco” on your communications device. Jeepers.


OpenID is a technical protocol that is used in user authentication. It’s more for an individual to log into a website, than for you to contact and connect with that individual. So it wouldn’t help in this context.

Social security number

This number is a little too important to be used casually. As a government-issued unique identifier, it can lead to identity fraud if used maliciously.

It’s arguably a poor unique identifier as well. I would love to see the government use a different one. But there are few viable alternatives for them. Facebook sure wouldn’t work. Maybe something biological? I don’t know. That’s a tougher problem to solve.

Driver’s license & passport

Being physical items, it would be difficult to use these in a communications context. Their numbers – which are really alphanumeric – are more portable than the physical items themselves. Being of a limited length, these numbers suffer from namespace issues as well, though the use of alphabetic characters extends them a bit.

But who’s realistically going to memorize or write down their friends’ driver’s license and/or passport numbers? They aren’t even as good as usernames and email addresses. People can select their own usernames & email addresses; driver’s license & passport numbers are issued seemingly at random.

License plate number

I included this one just to highlight its absurdity. A license plate number is a unique identifier for a vehicle, not a person. It’s about as helpful as a phone number, which is really a unique identifier for a mobile device, not a person. The only difference is portability; it’s easier to bring a mobile device with you than, well, a vehicle.

Fingerprints & DNA

There are a whole host of biometric unique identifiers, from physiological (fingerprints, DNA, retinal patterns) to behavioral (voice, gait, typing rhythm). Sure, these can uniquely identify a friend, but how would you realistically use a friend’s retinal pattern to send them a message? Keep a copy of your friend’s eyeball on your keychain? Gross.

Ideal unique identification traits

Obviously, most of the unique identifiers listed above wouldn’t work in a communication context. What would work? The perfect identifier would be:

  • Unique
  • Meaningful
  • Scalable
  • Portable

It’s got to be unique, of course.

It should also be meaningful. “mikelee12345″ isn’t terribly meaningful, but it’s possible to achieve some kind of meaning in such an alphanumeric string. “mikelee-from-newyork” perhaps? Long and unwieldy, but more meaningful.

It should be scalable. Limited-length strings have a, you know, limit. The only way to scale those is to increase the limit – which has its pitfalls (the constraints of limits, I mean). Think Y2K. Someday, we’ll have a Y10K problem.

It should be portable. Some unique identifiers, like physical items and biometrics, aren’t portable. That’s why alphanumeric strings have been used in the past. It’s easy to store such an identifier in a communications device.

With these limitations, it’s easy to see why phone numbers and usernames have been in use. But is there a better way?

Contextual real-world unique identification

I briefly touched on how real names are the simplest real-world identifier. In a crowded room, you can use a person’s first name to identify him/her. For a common name like “Mike,” a last name is necessary. And for a common name like “Mike Lee,” you need to add an extra layer of context, because by themselves, real names aren’t unique enough.

What is a useful layer of context? There are several kinds. You can say, “Mike Lee from New York,” “Mike Lee, who used to work at Yahoo,” or “Mike Lee, that hairy Chinese American guy.” Current location and hometown are common contextual items. Vocation and employment is another, especially in the US. A physical or personality-based description is another.

Some social networks realize this. LinkedIn uses a real name, photo, current employment, and a self-chosen tagline. Facebook uses a real name, photo and a network. On a mobile device, both default to the simplest pair: a real name & a photo.

That, to me, is the key. A real name & a photo. The real name is a natural identifier, and the photo adds context. Together, these are unique, meaningful, scalable (a photo is rich visual representation with a nearly infinite set of pixel combinations), and portal (a photo image file is also small enough to be stored on a mobile device).

Phone numbers vs real names & photos

I consider myself a humanistic technologist. I believe that technology should be centered around the interests, needs, and behavior of human beings. Technology is a tool and shouldn’t be a hinderance, as it often is.

This is what Singhal was trying to convey. Phone numbers surface technical constraints. They are an unnatural way to reach your friends. We’ve put up with it because realistic alternatives haven’t existed. The advent of social networks and mobile devices may finally be offering a viable solution.

Within the code of a LinkedIn or Facebook account, each individual is represented by a numeric (or perhaps alphanumeric) unique identifier. And that’s okay. That’s how programming languages can most efficiently handle a unique entity. But the presentation of that information should not reflect technology’s constraints. It should reflect your actual mental mode of that individual. Such as a real name & a photo.

Product Development Speed vs Product Development Velocity

Ever hear someone say they are concerned with the speed of their product development process? Every time I do, I can’t help but cringe a little.

I’m all for Build Fast & Iterate Quickly. Any technology company not moving at lightning speed will stagnant like a still shark. By all means, go fast.

Product development speed isn’t the right trait, however. It’s product development velocity. For the average person, there is a subtle difference between the two terms. But to an engineer, it is an important difference. Here’s a quick recap of the definitions:

  • Speed is a scalar quantity. It is the rate of change of an object’s position.
  • Velocity is a vector quantity. It is the rate of change of an object’s displacement.

(Confused? That’s okay. Watch the Khan Academy’s Introduction to motion for a quick refresher of high school physics. No one will know you did and you’ll feel all the smarter for it. hehe.)

Or, to put it into plain English: velocity is speed with a direction. If you take two steps forward at 2 mph, then two steps back at 2 mph, your speed is “2 mph.” But since you haven’t changed your location, your velocity is 0 mph. If you took four steps east at the same speed, your velocity would be “2 mph east.”

This is why product development velocity is more important. Your direction matters. You should be moving forward. Or at least away from where you currently are. If you’re moving quickly, but in circles, that’s not progress. That’s a waste of time.

It’s fine to move forward, to the left, or to the right. As a business, the goal is to move somewhere new. Every time you cover new ground, you have an opportunity to learn something you didn’t know before, to capture invaluable data. You need to uncover the Fog of War of your market and understand your landscape. You can only do that by moving in some new direction.

In other words, Build Fast, Iterate Quickly, and Move Forward.

Photo by: Mauropm

Empowering the Ultra Poor with Mobile Technologies

Speaking of the ubiquity of mobile phones, want to hear a crazy fact? Mobile phones are more common than toilets in India.

Almost 45% of the population there have mobile phones, while only 31% have access to improved sanitation. This includes many of the ultra poor in India.

If you haven’t heard the term before, the ultra poor are defined as “receiving less than 80 percent of minimum caloric intake whilst spending more than 80% of income on food” by Michael Lipton (quote from Wikipedia). They are the poorest of the poor.

Funny how they have mobile phones then, huh? This is no accident. There has been a concerted effort to bring mobile technologies to the masses. The result is a dramatic shift in knowledge access. In a world where “you can tell the rich from the poor by their internet connections,” mobile technologies are becoming a great equalizer.

Building upon insights such as this, Kamael Sugrim co-founded the non-profit mPowering. She took her background in finance & marketing, Stanford MBA, experience with Salesforce (CRM) & SAP (SAP), and witty insight, and turned it upside-down, realizing she would rather follow her passions than to remain in corporate America. Thus, mPowering. As they state on their website:

We are a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting the world’s poor in their journey out of poverty. Through mobile technology and true out-of-the-box thinking, we give individuals and families the power to change their lives – forever.

Their first step has been to create mobile apps that harness the incentives of location-based gaming.

I know. Definitely out-of-the-box, huh? When I think of helping the ultra poor with mobile technologies, that’s the last thing I think of too. But it sometimes takes a radical new idea to break an established “norm” such as extreme poverty.

Here’s what Sugrim and team have done so far:

They’ve created a mobile app – Android (GOOG) at the moment – that allows children to check-in when they’re at school. Each check-in awards them some points that can be redeemed later at a food & clothing distribution center. The idea is to encourage these children to go to school, get an education, and still “earn” the basic necessities for their family. It’s a step above merely just giving the food & clothing to these families.

With the donations mPowering receives, they also give out free mobile phones to these ultra poor families, ensuring that all of them have access to this program.

Will it work? I don’t know, but this is just the start. They’ve got big plans and a motivated team. I’m sure they’ll experiment with all kinds of interesting, out-of-the-box ideas.

Intrigued? They’re taking donations right now. I’m sure they’ll be open to volunteers and fresh ideas too. Now that they’ve gotten mobile phones into the hands of their initial target group, they’ve got a platform from which to try new things.

They are initially targeting Orissa, the poorest region in India, though they plan on expanding to all countries where there is a need. Sugrim is over in Orissa this very moment, blogging, tweeting, posting, and recording videos of her travels. Follow along to see first-hand how they’re empowering the ultra poor and where they’ll go next. I’m following not just because I support their cause, but because I’m curious about which technologies they’re going to use next. Cloud computing and the ultra poor? Chatroulette for the ultra poor? Oh, the possibilities!

Wikipedia Surfing

Has Wikipedia sucked hours out of your life, as it has mine?

There’s a dangerous new phenomenon out there. Wikipedia surfing. You start with one topic, see an interesting link, click on it, see another interesting link, click on that, and after a few hours, you’re on a completely different topic and full of interesting trivia.

Or, if you’re like me, you’ll open up multiple tabs, one for each new interesting link. And after a few hours, you’re on ten completely different topics and full of even more interesting trivia.

There’s even the Six Degrees of Wikipedia game, where you start with one topic, then find the shortest path to another topic. All you have to do is throw in some badges and you’ve turned a dangerous new phenomenon into a dangerous, yet fun new phenomenon. And that’s “dangerous” in terms of “OMG where did all those hours go?”, not the threat of harm or death, though if you don’t get up to pee and eat every once in a while, that may happen.

Why is it about Wikipedia this enables behavior? This fragmented attention, where curiosity follows a web of tangents just for the sake of curiosity?

I believe it’s because Wikipedia is hypertext at its best. It’s even the realization of Tim Berners-Lee’s origin vision of the World Wide Web – a solution to presenting and sharing massive amounts of inter-related information. Turns out, hyperlinks aren’t only a fantastic way of leading a reader to related information, but also a great enabler of tangential information surfing.

It’s arguably even a step better than the Web, because every Wikipedia page is a topic of potentially interesting information. I sure can’t say the same about every page in the Web.

There’s already the phenomenon of web surfing: viewing websites and following interesting links. Wikipedia just offers more educational value.

So perhaps Wikipedia surfing isn’t all that bad. At least I’m filling my head with interesting trivia. And perhaps one day, I’ll get a badge for finding out that in 2005, a gigantic 20-foot pink stuffed rabbit was erected on a 5,000-foot hill in the northern Piedmont region of Italy.

Biz Vision: Mobile Will Have Social 4D Awareness

Mobile Phones in Tokyo's Subways Raise your hand if you carry your mobile phone with you everywhere you go.

Wow, look at all those hands. Not a big surprise though. On a planet with 6.8B people, it is estimated that there will be 5B mobile phone subscriptions by the end of 2010. That’s more than 70% of the world’s population.

Most even carry their phones everywhere they go. It’s not just a virtual connection to friends & family, but an entertainment center and life-saving device. I’ll bet most people even find it hard to imagine a time before mobile phones.

Essentially, mobile phones have become anytime, anywhere devices.

And not just a simple mobile phone. A smartphone. As computing power increases and technology costs decrease, smartphones will become commodities. Someday soon, everyone will have a one. That means everyone will be carrying a lot of computing power in their pockets.

Sure, there will be hardware advances such as finger recognition, improved resolutions, brain wave controls, etc. But the basic features of smartphones, the features that make a smartphone what it is today (mobile operating system, keyboard, ability to install third-party apps) will be commoditized and ubiquitous.

What will this mean? Lots of things, though there’s one I want to focus on today:

Social 4D Awareness

Mobile devices will offer a social 4D view of a person.

With a mobile device, we already know:

  • Where they are in 3D space (latitude, longitude, and altitude)
  • When they were there in time

With mobile software, we also know:

  • Who they communicate with in their social network
  • How they are connected to each person in their social network
  • How frequently they interact with each connection

Knowing a person’s latitude, longitude and altitude gives us a 3D view of their location. Adding time to this equation gives us a 4D view of their travels. We can tell where a person is and has been, much as Google Latitude’s Location History (GOOG) currently offers.

Every person has several stores of social graphs: their email’s address book, their mobile phone’s address book, their social networks, and their connections on other social media sites. The one device that could harness all of those stores is a mobile device, especially a smartphone that offers email and third-party app capabilities.

This has many applications:


If we watch a person’s location over time, we can determine that person’s velocity. Plot that movement against a street and public transit map and it will be possible to determine the mode of transportation, be it by walking, car, bus, train, or boat. It wouldn’t make sense to get a notification of a nearby sale if you’re on a train, right?


A history of visited locations can offer a detailed view of your preferences and behaviors. Also, how long you’ve been at someplace is just as, if not more important than where you’ve been. Will you be dining at your favorite restaurant? Or just picking up some take-out? Were you at an event (assuming we can get event data), or just using the bathroom at a convention center? An always-on location tracking service doesn’t have the benefit of a conscious check-in, so determining a location’s relevance may be a factor of time.

True Social Network

A utility that is aware of who you email, call, text, and interact with on various social media sites – and how often – would have a vary accurate model of your true social network. Couple that with who you interact with offline, judging by who is in your same location for some length of time, and the accuracy improves significantly.


There may be times when you want to run into friends and acquaintances, such as at a concert, during an industry conference, when you’re traveling, etc. A mobile device that is location-aware and socially-aware can offer this, as evident in the large number of services already doing this. The same could be done for a customer’s favorite locations or chains too, of course.


People are too complexed and nuanced for a one-size-fits-all model. Products that are customizable are generally preferred. However, not everyone will take the time or know how to customize a product. That’s where products with intelligent automatic personalization will win, provided they offer the ability to adjust, refine, and opt-out. Having a social 4D awareness of a person will equip a product with the intelligence for such features.


Having this depth of knowledge means preferences can be inferred. If you travel to a new city that has your favorite restaurant, we can suggest it to you. Or if friends with similar tastes have frequented a restaurant in that new city, we can suggest that too. Same goes for movies, hotels, products, etc. In addition to external suggestions, internal suggestions of features within a product or service can also be made.


This depth of knowledge doesn’t only offer preference inferences, but behavioral predictions as well. If you tend to attend sci-fi movie premieres, we can offer a range of related activities based on that predictive inference, such as upcoming sci-fi movies, nearby restaurants, nearby friends with similar interests, etc. Or a nearby landmark that was used in the movie, if you’ve visited landmark sights in the past.


As you can imagine, any device or business entity holding this much intimate data about a person raises serious privacy concerns. Can you trust that entity to treat this data with respect? Will they offer reliable ways to opt-out and erase this data if you so choose?

Although some companies have mismanaged their privacy controls, I believe there is tremendous value to be had with predictive features. This assumes we handle your data with respect, offer total transparency, maintain crystal-clear communications, provide opt-out and deletion controls, and follow the Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Network Users.

P.S. The scientific side of me knows the label 4D isn’t entirely accurate because time isn’t considered the 4th dimension anymore. The marketing side of me realizes that most people don’t know this and still consider the 4th dimension as time, however. So for ease of understanding, I opted for the older definition of 4D.

Entrepreneurs are Bipolar

happy and sad “What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?” asked the business class instructor.

“To me, it means being bipolar,” answered Kamael Sugrim, co-founder and president of the non-profit mPowering. (Her foundation aims to help the ultra poor through mobile technologies and applications.)

Incredulous, the instructor pressed her. “What do you mean?” Other students had said the usual things: tenacity, passion, ingenuity. But bipolar? What an odd answer.

“I mean one minute, I’m on top of the world. The next, I’m slumming it at the bottom,” she answered. “One minute, I’m schmoozing with funders who are writing me checks. The next, I’m freaking out about our expenses. One minute, I’m putting together a grand plan to help thousands of starving families around the world. The next, I’m wondering ‘what the hell am I doing thinking I can save all of these people?’”

Raise your hand if you’ve had similar thoughts.

Every entrepreneur I know has gone through periods of self-doubt. Adeo Ressi, founder & CEO of The Founder Institute and calls this “the dark place.” “It is fucking hard,” he added in his usual colorful manner while he spoke at The Founder Conference 2010. “It is a very, very dark time. Every entrepreneur goes through it. You will too.”

There are occasionally eternally optimistic entrepreneurs, sure. But the majority will have times of great difficulty, coupled with times of great success. It’s the entrepreneur roller coaster. Mania and depression, rising with good news and dropping with bad.

And that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Photo by: surlygirl

Ninja’s Unboxing a Nexus One

Now for some Friday fun.

OMG, ninjas! Unboxing a… Nexus One?

Google (GOOG) must have loved this. I know, it’s an oldie, but still a goodie. Published back on January 18, 2010, this definitely made for a great unsolicited ad for the Nexus One.

Also: someone’s gotta hire Patrick Boivin for Robot Chicken.

Improvised Entrepreneurship

As a business leader, you often have to make snap decisions while walking and chewing bubble gum. It’s not always easy, but it’s part of the job. Also, it’s a skill you can improve.

How? Take an improv class!

Yea, I know. You’re thinking, “I don’t want to be a comedian. Why should I take improv?”

Because improv isn’t just about comedy. It’s about being in the moment, trusting your gut, accepting mistakes, and moving forward. Sounds a lot like what you do, right?

Here are 10 principles of improv and how they map to entrepreneurship:

Principle 1: Be prepared & warm up
Before doing improv, participants train their minds to sharpen their awareness, enhance their listening skills, and be ready for anything. In business, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen next. So the best thing you can do is to sharpen your awareness, enhance your listening skills, and be ready for, well, anything.
Principle 2: Willingness
Improv participants have to be willing to mess up big time, look foolish, and move on. Whether you like it or not, you will mess up big time and look foolish too. Perhaps more often than not. You may have maxed out all your credit cards and spent months locked in your room, only to emerge with a load of debt and obscene body odor. The key is to be willing to accept this and move on. And to take a shower.
Principle 3: Stay in the moment
Improv is all about what is happening now, because that’s where life is happening. As an entrepreneur, you should still plan for the future, but be mindful of the present as well. Keep an eye on today’s finances, metrics, market, and customers, and trends. It is important to balance the future and the present, long-term strategy with short-term tactics.
Principle 4: Shut up and listen
Good improv participants are good listeners. They don’t think about what they’re going to say next. They listen to what has been said, then build off of it. The next time you talk to your customers, make sure you listen. Put your problem solving urges aside so you can process what they are saying.
Principle 5: Action beats inaction
“Don’t talk about doing it, do it.” Be a shark. Keep on moving. If you suddenly find yourself going the wrong way, turn. Move quickly and course correct quickly. If you’re debating between doing more data analysis and taking action, I can help end that debate: take action.
Principle 6: Be honest
Doing improv means learning not to censor or judge your own thoughts. Improv participants express themselves sincerely and genuinely. And authentically. Leaders who act this way tend to inspire others to follow them as well.
Principle 7: Let go of (your need to) control
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the courage to change that which I can, the serenity to accept that which I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a powerful principle, one that I use in business and in life. The serenity to accept that which you cannot control is the key here. If you cannot control sometime, like the economy, there is no benefit in worrying about it.
Principle 8: There are no mistakes
Beyond being willing to make mistakes is the belief that there are no mistakes – only actions that lead to positive results, or lessons to be learned (which in itself is a positive result). When you are creating a new company, every step you take will be teaching you a valuable lesson.
Principle 9: Trust
Improv is a team-based activity where trust for others is a requirement. Same goes for a business too. Trust yourself, your instinct, your impulses, and your choices. Trust your team, for they are helping you achieve the vision of your business.
Principle 10: Teamwork (row, row, row)
Speaking of teams, improv participants don’t just trust their teammates, they rely on them. This interdependence is what makes improv work. And yes, a business is no different. If you don’t depend on others, you’ll never be able to grow your business. Take the time to build a solid, dependable team, then trust them to help move the business forward.
Bonus Principle: “Yes, and…”
Ah yes, a bonus principle. This is a pervasive idea that weaves through all of the others. It “implies acceptance, but not acquiescence.” It is the opposite of “No, but…” To be a successful business leader, you will need a similar attitude. They are not problems in your way, but challenges to overcome. They are not mistakes that hurt, but lessons to learn.

Want to know more about improv? Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre is a classic. Start there.

If you would prefer hands-on training, sign up for a local improv class. It is not about being funny. It is about being comfortable enough with yourself to think on the spot. And that is a skill any entrepreneur needs.

Props to: Harry Max