Are ‘phone calls’ obsolete?

Today’s video call platforms will make phone calls the new telegram.

I have avoided phone calls for years, to the extent possible. Especially for one-to-one communication. They are a combination of low-fidelity (no video so no facial cues, often poor quality sound) and intrusive (a ‘foreground’ activity that makes it hard or impossible to multitask). So, as much as possible, I’ve steered people toward consumer video tools like Skype or Hangouts (high fidelity X foreground), or chat tools like Messages or Slack (low fidelity, background).

The obligatory 2X2 matrix

Video is best in situations where I don’t know people very well, and we are just beginning to get to know each other. Also, video is excellent in the ‘wherever’ situation when the participants in the ‘call’ are in various different locations, like different conference rooms or in different buildings/cities/countries. This is particularly evident in the case of a single remote participant talking with a roomful of people who are colocated. These are all situations where I find telephone calls deeply inferior compared to video calls.

Chat is the best low fidelity solution. Email has its purposes, but most of them look like spam. Chat, on the other hand, slides from synchronous to asynchronous with very little friction. If I’m chatting with someone actively, and they leave the chat, I’m not greatly surprised, and when they return they can pick up the discussion without a hiccup. This timing shift is simply not supported with phone calls. There is no support for an synchronous phone call to become asynchronous, because the entire protocol is based around synchronous communication. Voicemail is not this. There’s no way to shift fluidly from a call to voice mail and back.

Face-to-Face is great, but not practical as a general rule in the work wherever world.

But perhaps we are moving to a new era, where it will be effortless and natural to transitioning between the best low fidelity X background mode (chat) and the best practical high fidelity X foreground mode (video).

Here’s the common use case for switching tempo: a small group of people (2–7?) are present in a chat room, and some topic comes up. A number of the participants start chatting feverishly, and then the chat metaphor gets in the way. In that case the participants opt for higher fidelity and move to video, so that, among other things, multiple people can talk at once, people can interrupt, faces and gestures can be seen: they can employ the affordances of video/audio. And then later, once things have been resolved, or some clarity has occurred, people can drop back into the slower, asynchronous, norm, lo fi of chat.

Until quite recently, this wasn’t easy. The various pieces of the puzzle weren’t integrated well or at all. Yes, I’ve had a few situations where a Twitter DM chat uptempoed to a phone call, but it’s rare. For example, just because I know someone’s Twitter handle doesn’t mean they are in my phone’s contact list. The services have been unintegrated, and designed without the ideal of integration — of tempo change — built in.

Slack’s recent integration of video calls, and the new products from Amazon (Chime, released a few weeks ago) and Google (Meet, not fully released), may be the tipping point for all business conference calls to become HD video. Of course, there are a long list of other competitors, like Microsoft, Dialpad, Cisco, and many, many others.

I’ve used Slack’s video call feature only a few times, but that may be in part because Slack is inward focused — within the organization — and the overwhelming majority of my comms are with people outside the organization.

However, I’ve used Amazon Chime for a few weeks, and I think its video and audio are much better than anything I’ve used before. But I think that this is becoming state-of-the-practice, and we should see equivalent high-quality, low-latency, high-reliability, and low-cost video service offered by all the giants: Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, (and perhaps Facebook and Apple), as well as focused upstarts.

Are we headed for a tipping point, where phone calls are obsolete?

For years companies have striven to move important communication out of email — anything that should be managed as a system-of-record or system-of-coordination — because ‘email is where knowledge goes to die’. Are we going to see a widespread effort to move conversations that used to happen in phone calls and conference calls (the worst!) to the high-fidelity X foreground quadrant?

One last point: virtual reality is becoming… well, a reality. And one of the most obvious use cases is augmented video conferencing. Imagine a conference call where all sorts of metadata about the participants is available: title, company, geographical location, messages sent to them, notes about them, their last blog post, recent tweets, what percentage of the call they’ve been speaking, votes on decisions, etc., etc. And all of this superimposed on the video canvas, with filters in the hands of the individual or the conference call organizer. Of course this is also useful in 1:1 calls, too, but the best use case is in larger conferences.

I suspect we will see this sort of technology rolling out in the next year or so, as experiments by the Giants or in new startups. But augmented video calls will be the end of phone calls in the business context, and probably for consumers, as well.




My principal obsession is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

My principal obsession is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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