"What fresh hell is this?" That's how author Dorothy Parker famously greeted the intrusion of a ringing phone. If you share her opinion, take heart: The telephone as we know it might be on its deathbed.
In a recent Wired article, writer Clive Thompson heralded "The Death of the Phone Call." Nielsen is chronicling signs of slow death: The average number of mobile phone calls people make has fallen every year after its 2007 peak. Mobile phone calls are also shrinking in duration. Five years ago, they averaged three minutes; now they're about a minute and a half.
We've all heard about how landline telephones are wasting away, robbing telecom companies like Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , Sprint-Nextel (NYSE: S ) and AT&T (NYSE: T ) of a longtime cash cow, and forcing them to scramble toward the more competitive world of wireless services.
According to recent data from a Citi Investment Research report, almost 30% of U.S. households no longer have a landline, and about 5% of households are cutting that cord every year.
The decline of the landline may be old news, but the death of the voice call sounds a little wild. (Perhaps the allegations that some of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) new iPhones couldn't make phone calls simply showed how ahead-of-the-curve that company is!)
Yet this possible outcome makes sense. Thompson pointed out how the demanding immediacy of phone calls has great capacity to annoy. We don't know what the other person is doing when we call. He also said phone calls suck up a great deal of "emotional bandwidth."
Newer communication tools like texting, instant messaging, and social networking may be disruptive to the business of voice calls, but they're far less disruptive to actual life. Unlike my infernal telephone, these new means of communication can even let people know whether I'm busy, away, or available -- and thus never make me feel like I want to beat said devices repeatedly with a hammer.
The line's dead
As an investor, you don't want to be on the wrong side of industry-disrupting forces. The arrival of digital music hasn't made Warner Music Group a great long-term investment, to say the least. And the increasing popularity of e-books lends majorly morbid concerns to the concept of investing in Borders Group or Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS ) , too, despite their best efforts to innovate within the space.
For now, the telecom companies listed above are still contenders. Customers who increasingly cut their landlines will eventually hurt their bottom lines, but still, the bane of their old-school businesses at least partly benefits their wireless businesses in turn.
Meanwhile, Apple, Research in Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) , and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) are all duking it out in the smartphone market, which are no less adept at texting and social networking as they are at handling voice calls. As communication habits continue to shift, they'll likely yield fast evolutions and lethal threats.
Where do you see our interpersonal communications going from here? Are we on the verge of the death of the phone call, or is such talk an overreaction? Let your opinion ring out in the comment boxes below.