Phone numbers are already obsolete in one way — when's the last time you had to type one in before hitting the call button? But those seven-digit codes haven't let go of our phone calls just yet. Voice over IP (calling over the internet), a painfully, stupidly, obviously inevitable technology, is still waiting in the wings, at least on our cellphones.
Facebook is reportedly testing voice calls in its Messenger app on iOS, first in Canada. (Americans will get push-to-talk voice messages for now.) If the Canadian version rolls out to everyone, Facebook has the chance to change the way smartphone users call each other almost overnight. Users will still scroll through a list of names, they'll still tap call, and they'll still hear their contact's voice. But those contacts would live on Facebook instead of in a phonebook; and that voice will be travelling through Facebook's servers, paid for through users' data plans — not as part of a voice plan. It's something they're already trying to do with messaging and email; the difference is that here, there aren't as many clear competitors.
Apple and Google have been in a position to do this for years. 3G networks have always been able to handle VoIP calls fairly well, either via Skype or in tandem with video, through Facetime. But Apple and Google (or at least its partners) have to do something that Facebook doesn't: negotiate contracts with mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon, who are doing everything they can to delay VoIP over cell networks. When Apple turned on iMessage by default, drastically cutting down on iPhone users' text usage, carriers immediately restructured their texting plans to prevent people from downgrading. If Apple tried to do the same thing with calling — and it very easily could — the carriers, with which it has multi-billion contracts, some multiple years long, would not be happy. Facebook can also leapfrog the current crop of VoIP companies in a meaningful way. Facebook skips from numbers straight to real identities, and skips Skype's "username" stage altogether.
Without a phone or phone OS, Facebook doesn't have to worry about this (at least, not yet). And while Apple and Google could flip the switch on vast networks for iPhone-to-iPhone or Android-to-Android VoIP calling, Facebook has the chance to do something much larger. Almost everyone with a smartphone has a Facebook account, and every smartphone with an app store can be a "Facebook Phone." iOS, Android and Windows Phone already associate contact entries with Facebook accounts, and the friend list sections of the mobile apps already let you tap to call, albeit through your regular phone plan. Facebook is better integrated with Apple, Microsoft and Google's mobile platform than some of those companies' own services and social networks.
Whether you're ambivalent about Facebook or outright dislike it, this could be huge — a way that Facebook could force consumer tech a little further down an inevitable path, a little sooner.
And a chance to do its users something like a real favor, using information it was going to collect anyway.