Could your phone number be identity?

Interesting post on identity, phone numbers, etc. over at the most excellent Telepocalypse.

It includes the delightful paragraph that I will have to work into a blog posting some day:

Now, the following is so vital, I’m going to put it in large red bold. It’s the only large red bold ever posted on Telepocalypse, and I promise not to do it again unless something even larger, redder and bolder is being said. Which isn’t likely.

What comes next? Well this (emphasis removed):

What’s the core purpose of a telco? A telco joins the physical world to the virtual world.

My first thought after reading that was: “Hm: so Orange isn’t really a color or a fruit, it’s just the peel.” (Orange is a telecom company in Europe).

It’s hard when talking about the architecture of the net to decide what to emphasis. I, for example, tend to emphasis the how exchange becomes standardized and that leads to consolidation of power in the hands of middlemen. Other people emphasis empowering the ends; or advancing the client; or toolkits for distributed apps; or distributed data models.

Martin’s bold red words insist that we take note of another thing. The telcom industry has a lot of control over the border crossings.

The first time I ever say the “cloud” drawing was in a phone company document. You know the cloud drawing right? It shows mom on the phone, and the butcher on another phone. Little lines run from their phones over little telephone polls and then disappear into a fluffy cloud. Sometimes that cloud is labeled “the phone company.” These days the drawing shows mom’s browser on one side and eBay’s servers on the other side; and the cloud is labeled the net.

The cloud drawing implicitly says – “Don’t worry your pretty head about what’s inside this ball of fog. We will take care of it.”

Martian’s bold red word? Yeah the phone companies lost control of the cloud; now all they have is the rine. Of course, controlling the border can be a very profitable place to be.

Collectively the telecom industry is a fascinating beast. Historically the industry was very granular; each major player existed inside a safe geographic bubble where they had captured the regulator. Set aside how that empowered them to frustrate progress for so long that now that the damn has burst all hell broken loose. The granular structure created a set of peers who didn’t threaten each other. Those peers could then work collaboratively to look for joint gains. One of the forums for that was the International Telecommunications Union. The ITU of the old gorillas in the standards setting world.

When big disruptive change washes over an industry they can existing players can only fight back with the muscles they already have. Martin is arguing that if the telecom industry knew what they were doing they would be using their standardization muscles to get a handle on the identity standard – possibly by evolving the phone number.

It’s an interesting thought. They industry has fought so hard to avoid number portability. A fight that is all about defending the old obsolete granularity of the industry. Now just maybe they need to turn around and strive to make the numbers even more pliable.

Consider this concrete example. I’ve been forwarding a VOIP number to assorted phones; and I give it out as my “mobile” number. This causes a bit of trouble when I call from one or another cell phone – the guy on the other end doesn’t know it’s me because I can’t annotate my outgoing phone calls with my “mobile number” persona. (Well at least not until I absorb even more of the functions the phone company provides.) This trick as tree advantages. I can use a real phone for more calls. I can avoid cell minute costs on some calls. I can grab the cheapest mobile service and switching carriers when ever the sign up incentives of the last carrier run out.

In any case; Martin’s post is an it’s an interesting view of the identity problem from the point of view of just one industry. It suffers a bit from failing to admit how many other industries are similarly waking up to the value of their “relationship asset.”

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