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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cell phones need far more intelligence for phone calls

I'm surprised at how stupid our phones still are. Let's review what the situation with regular POTS phones is like. You have a glorified microphone and speaker lashed up to a pair of wires. There is also a little chip which will emit up to 16 tones keyed by rows and columns to tell other things what to do.

Normally you use this to say where you are calling, but you can also use it to kick off certain commands like "forward all calls", or "forward some calls", or "block the last caller".

Then there's the whole thing where they fire a blast of low-speed data over the (on-hook) line between rings to convey data like who's calling, or if you have a voicemail message waiting. You need something which implements the receive side of an ancient modem and has some magic in it to not take the line "off hook" to make this work. We call them "Caller-ID boxes".

They are all great extensions of the 100+ year old base technology which is essentially unchanged. Sure, we went from operator dialing to pulses to tones, but the basic electrical characteristics are about the same. The network is smart and the phones are relatively stupid.

Then there's the whole thing with cell phones. Most of us who have "smart phones" built in the past 5 years or so are now carrying Unix boxes around. Think about this. Not only are they tiny little Unix boxes with far more processing power, storage space, and working memory than my original web server ran, they have mobile TCP/IP access almost anywhere!

Yet, when I get a phone call on my pocket sized Unix box, I can't have some kind of program which does something intelligent with it. I can't have the program wake up and say "network, tell this guy to go to hell". Nope. All I can do is dismiss the call. If they're someone obnoxious, they'll be back sooner or later, and the process will repeat.

We have all of this processing power available at the end nodes now, and yet it's not being used to improve on the actual telephony experience. I wonder how much of this is some ridiculous attempt on the part of cell providers to squeeze even more money out of their subscribers. They probably have some "call manager service" which uses a horrible IE-only web site and has completely unreasonable limitations on how many numbers it can list. This is not sufficient as far as I am concerned.

I want to be able to mark a number as bad and have it disappear from my life. Phone calls, texts, I don't care. It won't even show up on the list. The network will be instructed to dump the call. Don't route it to voicemail, and don't accept the message. Just send it to the bit bucket.

This needs to be in the phone, since it's part of my experience. I don't want it to live in the carrier's systems, since it needs to follow me around no matter who I use. My number is portable, and so my incoming preferences need to be just as portable. It also needs to be tightly integrated with the phone's native experience so that it's trivial to cast them off and never see them again. If I have to do anything more than "ban" and "OK" then they have failed.

I know there are services which will accept/filter calls and then pass them to your cell phone. That's missing the point entirely, since my phone still has a number of its own, and it can be bothered that way.

For me, this means Apple needs to step up and start paying attention to the "phone" part of things. They did something fundamentally important by moving voicemail from "blast tones over a real phone call" to being a local process. That was five years ago.

It's time for more progress in that vein. Bring more of the "network" onto the phone and let us do useful things with all of this horsepower.