Fring. Skype. FaceTime. Qik. Do any of these words look familiar? Maybe a little? Maybe Fring is some lingo kids use, like, “Hey, could you Fring that pen to me?” Qik—maybe that’s a typo for the word “quick?”
FaceTime might ring a bell—it’s the focus of Apple’s commercials for the new iPhone. The ones where you see one person talking on the phone’s screen and are led to believe another person is talking to them in a video call, like something ripped from The Jetsons. (I haven’t tried this yet, but if anyone with an iPhone 4 wants to send me their phone number, I’ll gladly go loiter at the Walt Whitman Apple Store this weekend and give it a whirl.)
Apple’s offering makes use of what we acronym-loving nerds called VoIP. VoIP stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol. In essence, it consists of using a highspeed Internet connection to make phone calls. Download a program, fire it up, grab someone else’s username and bam!—you can see them, you can hear them and you can communicate with them. Best of all, these services are at your disposal sans any type of cost. The only requirements are a computer, the software, an Internet connection and webcam.
At first, this was a huge deal. “You mean I can talk to and see my relatives who live in another time zone?” Yes, that’s what I mean. But slowly the novelty wore off—“Actually, seeing my relatives once a year at the family reunion is enough.” That is, until somebody looked at their touchscreen, thousands-of-songs-holding, GPS-touting, highspeed Internet-capable cell phone and thought, “Wait a second!”
Now we’ve got all these services on phones, some with audio and video and some with just audio. That’s actually a tremendous deal, because while you’re using these VoIP services, you’re not using any of your phone’s minutes. You’re on the phone with someone, gratis. In other words, you don’t need your phone’s service.
It’s a pretty strange thing to imagine, but let’s imagine it. Let’s go there, to a world where Sprint is still thought of as fast running and AT&T is an acronym even we nerds don’t know.
Up front, one obvious pro is the douchebag in Verizon commercials would be out of a job, and I think we can all agree that would be a wonderful side-effect of technological progress. (“Can you hear me now?” No I can’t, because you have no money and are living out of a makeshift house made from posters with your smug face that used to hang on storefront windows held together by old phone chargers.)
A much bigger result is the forced relinquishing of power by the Big Four providers—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. The treatment we receive in the U.S. is not the worst in the world—a tap on the cheek compared to the beating our friends up north get at the hands of Bell, Telus and Rogers—but the contracts we’re forced to sign and exclusivity agreements inked between providers and manufacturers are beyond stifling, and we pay for it.
When the first iPhone was announced, Steve Jobs somehow spun it that the exclusive agreement between then-Cingular and Apple was good. No. There is nothing good about these exclusive agreements. Choice breeds competition, which breeds innovation and better products and services. What the current setup breeds is angry, resentful customers and a lack of a need to push the envelope. If I want the new iPhone, I’m forced to deal with AT&T’s garbage network that is as reliable as two Styrofoam cups attached by a string. If I want Motorola’s latest and greatest offering—the Droid X—I’m signing two years of my life away to Verizon with the option to buy out for $350.
Exclusive agreements forcing you to a carrier you may not want, astronomical early termination fees to keep you from leaving—it’s almost like these guys know what they’re offering isn’t worth the monthly fees they’re charging. But imagine a new offering—the young upstart, if you will—offering flawless service on any device for free. Things wouldn’t change overnight, but the Big Four would sit up, straighten their ties and give a sh*t.
Much like a world where we don’t need Cablevision, this is not something that exists yet, but it’s not far off. You could buy a cell phone for full retail price with no contract, make use of free WiFi slowly blanketing our Island and go to town. The biggest thing stopping VoIP from really taking off is people not knowing it exists and getting comfortable with it.
But that’s not far off. One day soon, my dad will say to me, “Hey, I tried to Skype you the other day but you didn’t answer.” Can you imagine?
Follow me on Twitter! | Twitter.com/BradPareso
Another idea: Conduct entire conversations using Twitter. It’s available on any computer, nearly every phone and would be far more useful than updates from Miley Cyrus on line at Starbucks. Drink coffee before leaving the house, that way you remember underwear.