Short History and Future of Single Number
The increase in mobility, coupled with the adoption of the creed of work-anywhere, anytime, on any device, makes single number more important than ever.
In the old days, single number wasn't a feature; people just had one business number. Pager numbers followed, then mobile numbers, and soon the Rolodex card was getting crowded. No one wants to miss an important call, so the practice of overtly advertising all of the numbers became common practice; sometimes there were so many numbers that it was necessary to use the back of the business card:
* Office Direct
* Office Main
* Toll Free
It became a burden on the caller to initiate communications. The big fear was that it could become easier for your customer to call a competitor than maintain an existing business relationship. Over the years, vendors and providers of communications have offered improvements to simplify transactions via single-number services.
Call Forwarding was actually invented in the late 1960s, but has been key to numerous single number solutions since then. When leaving the office, all it took was a simple call forward setting and problem solved--at least partially. For security reasons, many enterprise systems did not allow call forwarding to off-site numbers. Long distance fraud was common and costly; restricting Call Forwarding system-wide was a simple way to thwart hackers that had penetrated a system.
In addition to security concerns, most Call Forward settings could not be set or deactivated remotely. If a remote user wanted to stop the Forwarding, it required a trip back to the office. Also, calls could usually only be forwarded to one number at a time, until the next big evolution--Find Me/Follow Me, which took a caller through a sequence of Forwarding numbers.
In a similar vein, an early popular feature of VoIP systems was Simultaneous Ring (still popular), which provides a more efficient and passive solution than Find Me/Follow Me. As the name suggests, this feature sends a call to multiple designated devices simultaneously, and completes the call to whichever device picks up first.
The next big challenge was finding a means to manage outgoing calls. Caller-ID moved into the mainstream in the 1990s, and people started using Caller-ID logs as a directory. Thus, making a call from a different phone than your usual set introduced confusion about the correct number to dial, since your usual contacts might not be stored in that phone's logs. Suddenly, without knowing where that important caller might dial, just expecting a call could become a source of stress.
VoIP came about in the 2000s, expanding the footprint of enterprise phone systems to homes, hotels, etc. Outbound calling from a remote location was solved as long as the caller used a business phone or soft client. However, initiating outbound calls from non-business phones was still a problem. The caller had to actively make a difficult choice: reveal the caller-ID or block the outbound caller-ID. Since the latter resulted in no-answers, the multiple-number problem still had to be attacked. Some phone systems could broker a call to substitute the outbound CallerID, effectively calling both parties and connecting them. Early systems used automated attendants and DTMF tones to accomplish this. Internet-enabled smartphones used clients and the cellular data network to convey call request details.
Smartphones and faster wireless speeds introduced the modern mobile UC app that connects over the data network (3G/4G/Wi-Fi), completely bypassing the voice capability (and minutes) of a cell plan. These apps can even be installed on non-telephony devices such as tablets and laptop computers. Robust UC clients offer messaging, an integrated directory, and can also seamlessly move active calls among devices.
The UC client generally solved the problem--unless the caller happens to use SMS texting on the mobile. SMS texts are decreasing, but remain incredibly popular. Since the SMS address is the cell phone number, it breaks the single number charade.
There are only a few UC solutions that support single number services with SMS texting. In 2010, Mitel launched a branded cellular service which can be integrated with its single number service. Mitel has integrated the cellular service with its UC products and services to facilitate SMS within the single number service. Mitel's wireless service is part of its NetSolutions division, which offers hosted services, SIP/TDM trunking, MPLS networking, and Internet access.
Mitel allows users to set their outbound mobile caller-ID to display the primary enterprise DID/single number. Inbound SMS messages get routed directly to the mobile. A key benefit of this network-level approach is it doesn't require a client or even a smartphone, and SMS texts are sent/received to the native client on the cell phone. Mitel can bundle cellular services with other networking services, hosting, and even software maintenance into a single bill.
Last month we saw the launch of the Avaya Messaging Service (AMS). This service is carrier-agnostic and allows users to send and receive text messages from their primary (single) number. It's based on the Avaya IP messaging application. Internal Avaya messages stay IP. There's no need to change numbers or carriers, but it does require the Avaya service and client, which is billed monthly. It isn't SMS per se, but externally compatible with the global SMS network.
XO Communications recently launched a UC expansion to its Hosted PBX service called Worktime that includes support for SMS. Similar to the Avaya approach, it uses a separate messaging app on the smartphone that's SMS-compatible. Messages sent to a user's hosted number get delivered to the application, and SMSs sent from the application will appear as messages transmitted from the user's single-reach number. The native SMS capability of the cell phone remains intact for family and friends. These solutions enable dual persona on the mobile device, permitting personal and work identities that are each SMS-savvy.
The key difference with XO's solution is it is integrated with VoIP services like SIP and its "Flex" service bundle as a pure cloud offer, so there's no equipment or upfront capital investment. XO's solution requires XO to be the hosted provider, but will work with any cellular provider. The underlying technology is powered by BroadSoft.
Honorable mention goes to Google Voice, which also includes SMS within its consumer-oriented single-number service.
The increase in mobility as a work style, coupled with the adoption of the creed of work-anywhere, anytime, on any device, makes single number more important than ever. It isn't likely that the mobile devices will disappear. What is more likely is that expectations around them and the networks and servers supporting them will change.
In the old days, we had clear dual personas--work and home. But modern pressures have blurred those distinctions. For example, Facebook only allows one persona per its terms and conditions. The modern mobile phone, particularly with BYOD, is both a work and personal device.
As cell phones move toward LTE, the concept of voice minutes may disappear. If the device is just a data device, it could support multiple personas natively. BroadSoft made several high-level references to this at its recent Connections conference.
Wireless providers could expand into single number services by expanding into hosted PBX features. Most already offer hosted PBX services, but as a non-integrated service. In Canada, Rogers offers a single number service called Text that's linkedRogers One Number that allows sharing between a mobile phone and PC client. A SIP-connected phone seems like a reasonable evolutionary step.
Today, cell phones have unique numbers, but that could change as we move into LTE, just as the same email addresses work on multiple devices.
SMS messages are primarily associated with cellular services, and that's why the UC vendors have been slow to embrace them. However, that is changing. Any number can support SMS, and many non-cellular numbers do. Firms like XO and Twilio integrate SMS into their core services, and Rogers One Number intends to help bring SMS to traditional landline numbers.
Ten years ago the enterprise communications vendors largely ignored cellular, but today they all embrace it via smartphone applications. Now it is time to bring SMS into the fold as well. Expect offers from providers and software vendors to increasingly overlap.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.