The Phone as App: The End of the Mobile as We Know It

We need a new name for our ever more capable handheld computers. “Smartphone” doesn’t do it anymore, nor does Google’s stab at “superphone.” Both suggest that these devices are primarily phones, and that just isn’t so. And it’s becoming less so as new apps let you replace the built-in phone functionality with the service of your choice.

On the newest smartphones, particularly the iPhone and Android, the phone is nothing more than another app, and increasingly users are able to choose alternative phone applications. Unlike Skype, which been around for a number of mobiles for a while, these newer apps look and act like the standard dialer.

The built-in phone dialer is still generally the only one that can make a call using your wireless carrier’s voice network, but as long as we have unlimited data plans and limited voice minutes, that’s no particular advantage. More seriously on the iPhone, Apple has asserted a claim to bar apps that duplicate the functionality of the built-in dialer, but this restriction has been haphazardly applied and seem mainly designed to keep Google Voice off.

I haven’t found any consistent quality difference between standard voice calls and voice of IP calls, though VoIP tends to work somewhat better over Wi-Fi than on a 3G data network. Voice calls don’t take much bandwidth, so the speed of the network isn’t really an issue. But 3G networks then to suffer from high latency–the delay in getting packets across the network–and that adversely affects voice quality

Toktomi’s Line2 for the iPhone is my favorite of the alternative voice apps. The app looks nearly identical to the Phone app. It uses the standard iPhone contact list and even includes its own version of visual voicemail. As the name suggests, Line2 provides you iPhone with a second phone number, which can be in the area code of your choosing. The app is free, but the service costs $14.95 a month after a 30-day trial. That includes unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada, with international calls billed at low VoIP rates (anyone who makes a standard international call is either nuts or has someone else paying their phone bill.)

Goober VoIP for the iPhone isn’t as slick or comprehensive as Line2, but it does let you make VoIP calls at very low rates using an interface that looks very much like the regular iPhone dialer. Like Skype, it works with prepurchased service credits, but a number of prepaid monthly calling plans are also available.

Technology changes a lot more slowly than those of us in the tech business often think and conventional voice calling is going to be around for a long time (along with land lines, fax, cable TV, and other technologies that pundits have declared dead.) But over the long run treating voice as anything other than another form of data makes less and less sense. That LTE 4G service even includes a voice component is probably more a tribute to regulatory imperatives than any technological requirement. (WiMAX carriers seem to be happy providing  VoIP for voice on their networks.)

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