Microsoft's grand plan to eliminate phone numbers

Microsoft's grand plan to eliminate phone numbers

Summary: I've been puzzling over transcripts of a couple of recent speeches by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates where he discussed his vision for the end of phone numbers. But it wasn't until today, when I learned more about Microsoft's "Echoes" services platform for telcos that I began piecing together how Gates & Co. thinks Microsoft can do this.


I've been puzzling over transcripts of a couple of recent speeches by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates where he discussed his vision for the end of phone numbers. But it wasn't until today, when I learned more about Microsoft's "Echoes" services platform for telcos that I began piecing together how Gates & Co. thinks Microsoft can do this.

This is from one transcript of an early May speech Gates gave in Japan:

"Right now the mobile phone, the desktop phone, the e-mail that you have on the PC, or instant messaging, these are all very different things, and the issues about how much of your information or your schedule, your current activity you share with people who communicate with you is not well designed.... By bringing together all of these kinds of communication, we can greatly simplify them. We can get rid of phone numbers, have it so when you say you want to contact someone, based on who you are and where that person is, they can decide whether to take the call or take a message about that, and so a great efficiency improvement that can be made there." (emphasis mine)

So how does Microsoft propose getting rid of phone numbers? Here's an overview, from the same source who originally tipped me on Echoes:

Starting with Echoes Wave 1 -- the first iteration of Microsoft's services platform for telco providers that is due out this summer -- Microsoft plans to synchronize contacts. In other words, Live Messenger contacts will appear in a mobile user's address book (if the carrier is using Echoes). The contacts will be synced via Windows Live Messenger, so duplicates are eliminated.

Messenger contacts will automatically appear in users' phone address book, so that even if they don't know one of their Live Messenger contact's phone number, they still will be able to call it. Numbers will be able to ring simultaneously on multiple devices/systems. On the flip side, Echoes will help ensure instant-messaging-to-SMS continuity. A user can send an IM to any mobile contact, and the contact can respond via a text message.

So what is it about Echoes that will enable this magic? This is the source's explanation:

1. Echoes will assign a local mobile number to each Windows Live contact

2. Via its Address Book sync capabilities, Echoes will push these new new contacts into any mobile phone (no client required)

3. The user will be able to compose an SMS or place a voice call to these contacts

4. Echoes will ensure text messages are delivered to Windows Live contacts as chat conversations, and replies will be sent back from Messenger as SMS

5. Voice calls can be connected through Echoes directly from the mobile to the Windows Live Messenger user’s PC

6. As the mobile user will appear always “online” to friends (using Echoes client emulation server), conversations also will be able to start from the Windows Live cloud, pushed to the mobile as SMS

So what do you think? Does Microsoft's plan sound workable? Is this something you'd want to use in the next year or two (which is when Microsoft is encouraging carriers to push the Echoes functionality out)?

Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Mobility, Software, Telcos, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Yeah. Sure.

    Right after we get the paperless office, flying car & the long-promised 3-day work week.
    • super-sonic flying car

      Well, except that a super-sonic flying car that gets 100
      miles per gallon and 10K miles between fill-ups, and 3- or
      4-day 6-hour per day work-weeks might be good (even
      more productive), whereas this privacy violation scheme is
      thoroughly evil.
      • If you do the math

        That fill up would be painful (about 400 dollars)
    • chuckleberry - yeah sure - from stone cabin days ?

      that you chkl ??

    • Available Now


      I use a pocketPC phone ( Not the phone with a pocket PC tacked on edition, the pocketPC editions with a tacked on phone.)
      And I syncronise it with my work email and contacts and also my personal email (well 2 of them anyway) and it syncronises with y phone (through my PC which integrates the home phones through it and provides a bridge between my VOIP phone and my landline phone. And redirects both voip and landline calls to my cell phone /pocketPC if I am not at mt house (my own software on the PC running Windows XP and co-Linux) and so all of my contacts, all of my email, all of my sms and IM, my Facebook and all of my Windows Live all come through the one device anywhere I can get a cell signal. So what is new here is that MS wants to put this all through the telco's servers instead of through our home systems.
      Yes there is a privacy issue if it's on the telco's server. Having the connections all at home through my own server is much better.
      • To An Extent...

        It said M$'s plan to ELIMINATE phone numbers altogether. What you are talking about is an augmentation to the existing TELEPHONE system. Bill Gates is talking about ELIMINATING the TELEPHONE SYSTEM and making it a subsidiary of M$. If that happens I will either A) give up phone service B) be forced to give up my phone service since I use a a TELEPHONE C)SUE M$ for every penny they have. Privacy?!? Say good-by to that if M$ gets it pie-in-the-sky ways.
      • all fine but...

        the story is talking about just a phone, like most people use, not a 'smartphone' likeyou're using.
        • Not a smartphone

          He was pretty clear he's not using a smartphone (a phone with the Pocket PC tacked on) but a PDA phone (a Pocket PC with the phone tacked on) and to those of us that use PDA phones (even non-Windows ones--say maybe, Treos, or Blackberrys) the difference is HUGE. A smartphone is pretty much a phone but it has some cutsey carrier-dependent internet media features. A PDA phone is a real computer. And he's right. His setup gives him pretty much what MS is talking about, as does my setup with my Treo and Mac and Skype. Why does it matter that he's using a more expensive phone than "most people" use? The point is that most people could have it now if they paid for it. MS isn't talking about using "a regular phone like most people use".

          Perhaps you're jealous that you can't afford a PDA phone and the much higher rate plans that apply to them like sysop-dr can?
      • but.....

        But Joe Blow has to be able to do all this, not us I.T. people.
    • What's the point?

      To add to the unintentional humor in all of this, I say that a phone number is easier to remember than an e-mail address, which basically defeats the purpose of this.

      And what if there are multiple people with the same name in the area? Just one more thing to make this more complicated than simply entering a phone number.
      • What if...

        Let's throw out a scenario here. You are an early adopter
        of this technology, you love it, it's working great. Your
        brother has also adopted it, and most of your techie
        friends have gotten it as well.

        What if....

        You live in New York, and take taxis everywhere. You have
        been called to the local hospital for you mother after an
        extra long day at work filled with meetings and conference
        calls. Your phone dies, and you need to get ahold of your
        brother, and you can't get your brother's Live ID out of
        your phone. He considers himself a bit 1337 and has
        come up with the name 3ch0d4rk|\|355 and you can't
        remember all that garbage.

        Now what? He no longer has a phone number... and you
        can borrow the nurse's phone, but she's not on the Echoes
        network, so you can't log into Live with her phone. The
        doctors are all using the new iPhone .Mac network,
        because of the superior medical software available for
        iPhone 3.0.

        The two networks ARE compatible with each other, but you
        cannot log in to the Live service with the iPhone, you can
        just call Live ID's. You silently curse your brother for being
        so stupid.

        You've heard that there are some MicroSoft EchoPhones
        being installed in various public locations, but upon
        arriving at the payphone kiosk at the hospital, you realize
        that they haven't been upgraded yet, they still have the
        antiquated coin driven telco system, your Soft Card can't
        scan, and you can't get the Live ID.

        You struggle calling Microsoft Echoes Simulated Service -
        Accounts Management, but the voice driven robot is
        asking far more questions than you remember the answers
        to, and you try in vain to get an operator.

        The PA kicks on, and the Head RN calls you to the
        operating room. Your mother is dying.

        You fall in a heap beside her gurney when they roll it into
        ICU, an absolute wreck, hurting because you couldn't get
        ahold of your brother and you know your mother would
        have wanted him to be there. You know that he would
        want to be there.

        Your mother passes on 15 minutes later, calling your
        brother's name.

        I'm totally turning this into a short story series. "Echoes in
        the darkness" or something. It's my idea! Mine!
    • Never Going to Happen....

      M$ has about the same chance of eliminating phone numbers as me going to Mars -- slim to NONE. Phone numbers are based on something called the TELEPHONE -- you remember those?!? Indeed most people have at LEAST ONE in their homes. While cell phones may be fairly ubiquitous right now, TELEPHONES still dominate. As long as TELEPHONES exist there will be a need for TELEPHONE NUMBERS.

      What do I read about ECHOS?!? This is still yet another dream of Bil Gates and Co. to expand their monopoly and make us all dependent on M$ for everything -- Oh BTW do you remember Bill Gates saying that in the future all refrigerators would talk to you tell you what needed to be replaced etc., and of course Windows would be the heart of the refrigerator.

      What the BIG Bill (Gates) and Bummer should concentrate on is NOT getting rid of phone numbers, but rather delivering a stable, bug free OS. Since 1980 they have yet to even get something even close. M$ is still making the same ol' mistake: trying to integrate everything but the kitchen sink into their lousy OS. But.... I guess it stands to reason that now they want to integrate your TELEPHONE into their lousy OS. When that happens (and pigs fly) hackers will have a FIELD DAY. NOTHING will be ever be secure ever again.
      • A better idea!

        Why bother with such an antiquated 10 number telephone address? After all, it's OLD technology! We all know that old = useless JUNK, right?

        We all have unique DNA sequences. lets quantify those sequences into an extended IP address base and connect effortlessly to anyone anywhere anytime at the push of a radio button on a PDA phone!! We can always know where our loved friends/children are at all times! We can keep track of their medical histories, defects, traits, and tie this into our computerized toilets also! It's NEW high tech!! It's BETTER!

        And since everything about you is tied to your DNA sequence, it's a cinch that you, Mr/Mrs "new is better" will be targeted for this bilge because of your genetically predisposed DNA marker indicating a propensity for low intelligence!

        Gee, just think how effectively our collectivist government will function! Well, maybe not... M$' update service isn't a bright shinning star. Wouldn't that lift M$ to "Rulers of the world"?

        Yes indeed, Make Windows work right just once before dreaming of world control!
    • Is Bill really The Brain?

      this sounds like a really bad version of Pinky and the Brain. Just put Mr, Gates in there when he says, "We're doing the same thing we do every night Pinky, Planning how to RULE THE WORLD!!!" hehe ... though I think he actually says "destroy the world" but you get the idea.
      • Is Bill really The Brain? Hell no!

        Destroy the world is only applicable to Mr.Bush (aka Satan) !
    • Microsoft Grandstanding

      I believe Microsoft, is trying to move into a position where it can be seamless with everything. Unfortunately this also means controlling everything.

      I am sorry, however, I would need to do a bit more research before just handing Microsoft every form of communication that I use.

      I am not going to endorse Microsofts Monopoloy to a Mega Com Monopoloy. This will just never happen nor would we want it to.

      Why Can't Microsoft be happy with being the dominant player in one field instead of most fields?

      If Microsoft really had the peoples best interest at heart why would they not work on a open forum utilizing the proposed tech. This would ensure backwards compatibility with all tech and not relegate everyone to using Microsoft Tech.

      No Thank you Microsoft, I will stick to utilizing multiple sources of communications carrier and not one ran by Microsoft Tech.
    • How about fixing Xbox--we're on our 4th

      I'd be happy if Gates and crew just focused on fixing the Xbox--we're on our 4th.
  • Google has GrandCentral for contacting user's various phone numbers

    Google has GrandCentral something kind of along these lines with making multiple contacts but to the different phone numbers that one person may have (home phone, work phone, cell phone) with also email notification of the call. This is working now and you can assume that it will have other tentacles reaching out to other communications channels to the user.
    • GrandCentral

      Yeah...I've had an account with GrandCentral before Google bought them and it works ok, but I mainly use it make free phone calls to friends in other areas across the country. Google hasn't really improved it too much though...seems like its in one of their never-ending beta cycles.
      Question everything
  • Five 9's

    99.999% uptime (6 minutes downtime/year) for phone networks. Any outage longer than that goes for a root cause analysis. If the MS platform is routing the calls, or providing the database (they aren't getting rid of phone numbers, just hiding the number behind a global handle).

    Their platform is not five 9s.

    A few other flaws as I read them.
    [B]Echoes will assign a local mobile number to each Windows Live contact[/B]

    That isn't how it works, each NPA-NXX-X is assigned to a carrier and each one is assigned in an HLR (wireless talking here), it is permanent, and so echo's assigning local numbers is not valid. (Unless it is part of the once provisioning process, in which case echos is simply another flavor of the myriad billing systems in use today).

    I don't see how this handles number portability. I as an AT&T customer can move my number to Verizon (taking one of the npa-nxx-xxxx numbers that belongs to AT&T) and register at the number portability national registry so that calls actually arrive at the Verizon HLR. It is complicated, and can't see how the above fits in. (Again, unless simply an adjunct to the billing system in use today)

    How do they integrate this into existing call routing functions? If any telco tries to mandate "Live, and Messenger", etc, well, good luck. With a penetration level of 5 to 50%, how does it integrate. The Echos' platform will route the calls to the PC seamlessly, I doubt it, using what service, skype, vonage?

    [B]Numbers will be able to ring simultaneously on multiple devices/systems.[/B]

    There's a piece of magic I would like to see. It's called Flexible Alerting, been standard since 1997, and is rarely used because few networks are compliant. How any platform is going to handle simultaneous calls is a complete mystery.

    If I had to guess, this is simply an "extra" not part of the telecom network. Users who use live, etc can have the MS platform add contacts to their phone as aliases, but all call routing, existing functions, etc are not handled by the platform. The phone will be intelligent enough to know if you are sending an SMS, or email, which "handle" to use.

    Please post more details, I couldn't find any more on the web.

    I also have to ask, what problem is such a complicated (and I would not want to be the one testing the integration into a wireless network, what I actually do for a living) process and distruptive technology (in terms of radical change to existing networks) is going to solve?

    How often is it that we want to call someone we IM with and don't actually have a phone number for? (privacy issues, I may not want echos sending the ability to call me to those I IM with)? How does one prevent scam calls, sign up for Live, register a few thousdand "friends" then call them to offer them aluminum siding at 97% off MSRP?