The phone call isn't dying. It's already dead, but no one has had the decency to bury it. This may seem odd coming from someone who makes his living writing about smartphones but, odds are, of all the apps on your mobile the dialer is the one you use least. Cell phones are now used more for data than they are for calls.
But why? What is killing the phone call?
1. Cost. Back in the day, long-distance calls were the best way to stay in contact with someone who lived far, far away. Now they are a ridiculous waste of money. You can email or IM with someone from England or China as cheaply as you can with someone a block away. When you absolutely need that human connection, Skype or another VOIP service can provide it.
There's a reason "phone bars" overseas have switched to VOIP for their long-distance services. It saves them money-and it can save you money.
2. Convenience. Let's look at a hypothetical. Five years ago, I meet someone new, get their number, and call them for directions to their house. A month later there's another party at their place, but I've forgotten the address. My only option is to call them again, which will cost both of us time and cell minutes.
In the same situation today, I'd just need to text them once for an address or directions. The information will stay stored in my phone as long as I need it. The next time I need to find their house I just look up that conversation.
Five years ago, the average phone conversation was almost 3 minutes long. Now they are half that, and far less common to boot. I've gone weeks without making a call, and I am not alone. Half of American teenagers send 1500 text messages a week.
When you get a text or an IM or an email, you can choose to respond to it at your leisure. A phone call is an interruption. A text message is an opportunity for interaction. One half of a conversation that will wait for you before proceeding.
3. Impermanence. IMs and Emails and texts allow us to "talk" with multiple people at once and save evidence of those dialogues for later perusal. If you're a reasonably connected person, the odds are good that most of your gadget-based communication for the last few years has all been saved somewhere in the cloud.
Gchat convos are automatically saved to your account. Text messages last at least as long as you keep using your phone, and email doesn't die unless you choose to kill it.
This isn't an unqualified positive. There's a downside to having almost all of your communication saved permanently in the cloud but, when it comes to convenience, old fashioned voice calls simply can't compete.
4. The increasing complexity of our social lives. A year ago, I met a girl at a festival. We talked for about an hour and then went on our separate ways. There was no exchange of phone numbers or anything else, but she managed to find me on Facebook and we still chat regularly today. I'm sure many of you have had similar experiences; friends who wouldn't still be friends if it weren't for social media.
I met a man in Dublin last year and, thanks to Facebook we're still in touch. I can send a message to any of my friends from high school at the drop of a hat and so can you. Our social lives today are leaps and bounds more complicated than anything our parents or grandparents had the opportunity to deal with. In the modern world, you don't lose contact with someone unless one of you wants to sever that connection.
Dunbar's number shows that we can only maintain personal relationships with around 150 people at a time. Social media doesn't increase that number, but it DOES allow us to "drop" a relationship for a while and pick it back up again later. You can't lose track of people anymore.
It is impossible to juggle or maintain these vast chains of connection with only a phone. Voice calling is too limited for the social lives we lead today. It was an upgrade to what came before-telegraphs and snail mail and yelling loudly-but the Internet generation has moved as far beyond the phone as our parents moved beyond letters and postcards.
Paradoxically, while the phone call is dying, devices with phone functionality are more ubiquitous than ever before. There are only 1.3 billion landline phones, but more than three billion mobile phones on earth. Half the world has a mobile, which is one reason Google's Gmail calling service is so potentially lucrative. The rest of the world is edging towards the mobile ubiquity we reached years ago here.
It's fair to expect they'll follow the same pattern we did. Cell phones will give way to smartphones, and data will replace voice calls. The phone call is dead. Long live the phone!