I hate voice calls. In fact, I think I hate talking on the phone more than just about anything. But I especially hate talking on the phone at another person's convenience. Unlike a decade ago, the best way to get in touch with someone is no longer strictly via voice calls. There are virtually unlimited alternatives, some far better than others: SMS, instant messaging, video calling, email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
It never fails, though. People still call me, but only when I'm busy. I could be at home, bored on a Friday night or all Saturday and I won't get a single call. Even on weeknights when I have absolutely nothing going on, the phone never rings. But the minute – no, the second – I reach for my laptop to work, whether it be in the morning, at night or in the middle of the day, my phone starts ringing and buzzing off its (metaphorical) hook.
Just the other night, I was trying to have a video conference with a friend of mine about a project we're working on. Within two minutes of the call, my phone rang. I muted my mic and took the call. It was my mother. I told her I would call her back, got off of the phone and went back to the video call. A few minutes later, my phone rang again. I believe it was my sister that time, then my grandmother, a friend of mine who was meeting me for a movie later that evening and another friend. After the video call (read: once I was done working), I didn't receive another call all night.
And that's the problem with voice calls. You are always at the mercy of the caller's convenience. And if you ask to call someone back later, not only do you come off as too preoccupied to bother talking with them about something, you are also assuming they will be free to talk when you're free next.
Like many things in life, it's a vicious cycle. It's a nasty, archaic way of doing things. This is the 21st century. A large number of U.S. wireless subscribers already have smartphones, and a large portion of those who don't will switch to one this year, or the next ... or the year after that. Eventually, (dumb) feature phones will only be a faint memory and everyone's phone will be running some advanced smart platform, capable of virtually anything, capable of a much better calling system than we already have.
The question that I've been wondering lately is: why do we not have a global status system for cell phones already?
Set your status to "away" or "busy" and whoever calls you can see that status in their address book or anywhere on the phone that displays your number, name or face – messaging app, recent calls, etc. If your status is set to "away," the caller could be prompted with, "This person is busy. What would you like to do?" The caller could then send a text message, email, leave a voicemail or call anyway. (The "call anyway" feature would obviously be a necessary evil for emergencies, though I'm sure it would be misused by worried mothers around the world.)
Something like this wouldn't be all that difficult – it's essentially what happens with instant messaging or what happens when you try to call an offline contact on Skype. And there are already services out there, like Talk to You Later on BlackBerry that attempt to do just this. There have been a handful of others to surface over the years, yet nothing has stuck or been met with widespread adoption.
The big hurdle is that there is no one, unified smartphone platform. For something like this to be effective, there would have to be an agreement between Google, Apple, Microsoft, Research In Motion and any other mobile software provider out there (HP with webOS, Samsung with Bada OS, Nokia with Symbian, etc.). The chances of that are pretty slim as many of them are at each other's throats as it is. But a possible alternative could come from a third-party service that links users' numbers with a status system. It could work, but it would still be difficult to get everyone on board.
The first service that always comes to mind when I think about this, though, is Google Voice. Instead of a caller being met with the typical "say your name" prompt, it could default to a busy message and tell them to call me or leave me a voice message. This would neither require a caller to use the same service I'm using and it would keep them from interrupting me with an untimely call.
Plain and simple, I want this. Or something like it. I want the entire calling and phone number system to be redesigned. It's ancient now and is begging for an overhaul. And I'm tired of being rudely interrupted in the middle of work every ... single ... day. If I did any other work, I probably wouldn't care so much. But every day I get a handful of calls in the middle of the day – calls that could easily be avoided by sending a text or instant message, maybe even a tweet – that completely destroy my train of thought and any inkling of concentration I may have had. Every call sets me back anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, even if the call only lasts a few minutes.
Some of you are probably wondering how a voice call is any different or more disrupting than the alternatives I listed (SMS, IM, email, etc.) or why I don't just put my phones on silent. As for text messaging and IM, I can respond to those at my convenience. If I don't respond for an hour or two, most people don't get upset. Despite the fact that I usually stop what I am doing and answer right away, however, there is something about a voice call that derails my entire thought process. Maybe it's the fact that it lasts several minutes, versus the few seconds it takes to respond to a text message. I don't know exactly. And a few short messages is different than an ongoing text message conversation; if someone keeps texting me back, repeatedly, I eventually stop replying until I'm done working. If I leave my phone on silent and don't answer voice calls, though, there could be consequences. I could miss a call from the boss, which is always bad, or I could miss a call from my grandmother, mother or sister, and that's even worse.
A status message, even if people ignored it (much like I do on various instant messaging services), would give me a reason and excuse to have my phone on silent. Simply explaining after the fact that voice calls set me back hours each day and affect my work doesn't cut it. They will never understand.
I don't know which software or network provider will realize this first or when something will finally be done about it. But it needs to happen soon. Google? AT&T? Big Red? Anyone?