They Just Don’t Know It Yet
In the last year, everyone from schoolkids to retirees has learned a new behavior: click on a link to join a live video call.
Behavior change is hard — but once a new behavior is in place, building new technology around it is easy. New behaviors open up opportunities for startups and entrepreneurs.
Changes in our habits that have already happened will kill phone numbers. Let’s take a closer look.
Three Behavior Changes
We’ve changed our behavior in three critical ways since the COVID lockdown. Here are the new rules:
- Don’t pick up the phone unless you know who’s calling
- Click a Calendar link to schedule a video meeting for later
- Click a Zoom link to join a video call or online meeting
These changes stretch across three different product categories — Zoom meetings, Calendar links, and traditional telephone services. That’s why it’s hard for vendors like Zoom, Calendly, or AT&T to see the change that’s rapidly approaching.
Telephone Network Effects Are Collapsing
Telephones have dominated real-time communication a century based on one advantage: you could reach almost anyone just by dialing their number.
The network effect was incredibly strong — everyone had a phone number and almost everyone answered the phone. A network with billions of active nodes, each providing exponential value to all the others.
Today, people only pick up the phone when they know who is calling. The network is no longer “everyone with a phone number”, but instead “everyone who has my name in their Contacts list.” My effective network is not a billion people, but only a hundred people.
Metcalfe’s law tells us phone numbers are exponentially collapsing in value.
And it’s not fixable. A 10-digit number is a fundamentally insecure way to get real-time access to a human, and it’s no surprise that most of the calls placed today are just robots trying to get humans’ attention.
Unlike any other time in the last 100 years, phone numbers are now vulnerable to disruption.
The Way You Talk Is To Get a Link
Here’s how I got contact info for 9 of the last 12 meetings on my calendar: I got a scheduling link from someone’s website, social profile or by email. I clicked the scheduling link and made an appointment to talk to them — in a Zoom meeting.
It’s a two step process, with vendors like Calendly and Acuity focusing on the scheduling part, and vendors like Zoom and GoToMeeting focusing on the video calling. You have to zoom out to see the whole process. (pun intended).
If I actually want to talk to you — in real time — I need to get a link. If I try to use a phone number, I’m just going into a voicemail box full of robocalls.
They Don’t See It Coming
Online meeting vendors like Zoom don’t think they’re in the phone call business. Phone companies like AT&T and Verizon don’t see Zoom and Calendly as competitors.
The calendar link vendors have a stunning blind spot here. In an interview with TechCrunch, Calendly’s CEO Tope Awotona said there’s no way they would offer videoconferencing. “What you don’t want is to start a world war three with Zoom,” he said.
All the vendors see these as totally separate tools: online scheduling, videoconference, phone calling.
But look at how people are actually using the tools. If I want to talk to you in real time, I grab a scheduling link from your website or LinkedIn profile. From there, I get a meeting link. I click a link instead of dialing your phone number.
When the customers see the market in a different way than the vendors, the customers always win.
Why Phone & Email Linger
Proprietary vendors from Skype to WhatsApp to Signal have tried to make their platform the default choice. But all of them have less than 25% market share, meaning that most of the people I want to talk to don’t have the same App as I do. I can’t ask you to join a new App just to talk to me.
Phone and email have survived largely because they’re universal and not under the control of any one vendor. Everyone has access to these tools and nobody views them as a threat.
Browsers and URL’s are the Future
But there’s one more obvious tool that is universal, available to every vendor, and can power real-time voice communications — web browsers and URL’s.
Here’s a simple example: Join.me lets you set up a permanent meeting room where people can join at any time. That’s almost as good as a phone number — I can give you my URL, and you can use it to talk to me any time, from any device. It’s all in the browser, no downloads needed.
Permanent meeting rooms aren’t the whole solution. If you join the meeting at a random time, they don’t send me a notification that you want to talk and I should join the meeting also. They don’t handle the situation where two different people want to talk at the same time. They don’t let you leave a message. They aren’t very secure — anyone can Zoom-bomb you.
We Can Imagine the Future
But from here, we can imagine what a solution would look like:
- Everyone’s contact info is a URL, provided by a variety of vendors. Calls and meetings run in the browser, a universal tool on every device.
- From that URL, I can send a voice or video call immediately, or schedule a call for later. I can leave a message using text, voice or video.
- The communications App on your phone will ring when I hit your URL and place a call to you. It’s not feasible to leave a browser open 24/7 for receiving calls, so Apps and App notifications are the solution.
People only answer the phone when they know who’s calling — so the network value of the phone system has collapsed, and phone numbers are ripe for disruption.
The way we talk to new people today is to hit a Calendly link to schedule a meeting, then click a Zoom link to connect the call.
In other words — we click a link instead of dialing a phone number. Smart technologists will use these new behaviors as a foundation to build the future.
The future is an open system with multiple vendors, not a closed system like WhatsApp or Signal.
People will have a URL as their permanent address, and anyone with a browser can send a call from that URL to the App in the user’s pocket.
And we can say goodbye to 42 billion robocalls a year.