One Phone

When you look at it as a question of user interface design, the phone system is a mess.

The problem is easy to see if you visit the local Best Buy store. Wireless phones for use on a cellular network are found in one corner nearest the front of the store.

Wireless phones for use around the house are in the opposite corner of the store. And hidden in the middle of these are yet another wireless phone, for use on your home wi-fi network.

Way at the back you’ll find a few plug-in phones — seemingly a forgotten category.

But there really is no need to have four different categories of phones. After all, they all do the same thing.

Imagine if you could have one phone. At home you could plug it in. If you unplugged it, it would automatically switch to a home network, probably the same home wi-fi network that the portable computers use. When you left home, it would move your calls to the cellular network.

That doesn’t sound like too much to ask, does it? Cellular phones already routinely switch from one station to another and even from one frequency band to another. So switching from one protocol to another shouldn’t be much harder.

Various companies are working on various parts of this. Most significantly, T-Mobile is testing a plan that reportedly would add unlimited phone calls at home to one of its cellular plans for an additional $10 a month. That’s a price much lower than what you would pay for a separate home phone service. And best of all, you can use the same phone at home.

The Apple iPhone does the kind of context-sensitive protocol-switching I described, but only for data, not for voice transmissions. However, it seems that it or a similar device could just as easily do the same thing for phone calls if the phone companies would agree to it.

And sooner or later they’ll have to. The inefficiencies of using as many as four different kinds of phones come at a high price, a price that telephone consumers are currently paying. Eventually, it seems to me, consumers will insist on paying less.

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