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"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.

Google and Sprint Nextel are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy should not be tossed aside lightly.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (9)

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  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2010, at 3:42 PM, Atrossity wrote:

    I'm a sort of Luddite who would rather kill a cell phone than my landline. Although it actually isn't a landline since my apartment can't handle dsl and I got a cable line, at any rate it's still my landline phone. This telecom stuff gets complicated fast doesn't it?

    I decided I am happier without a cell phone, since I no l no longer have to maintain it and won't have a repeat of the time I was trying to decide on what vegetable to buy while a friend was peppering me with finance questions. I am not a multi tasker and I like it that way. There's always some new gadget that will distract me from my existence while people buy into its time saving utility.

    I have noted that cell phones have morphed into PCs and a handheld PC does indeed look really handy. I could compare store prices with web prices for goods while I shop and check out online reviews of restaurants or whatever.

    Oh well, that's just my take on the phenomenon, I'd be interested to hear what others views were.

    Great article, Alyce, but I'm going to remove my phone from the altar and go with my... hmm... hm... ah, my vacuum cleaner that often sprays the room with particulate matter?

  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2010, at 4:44 PM, AgAuMoney wrote:

    Mostly I hate interruptions, so why would I want to interrupt someone else?

    I still have a landline at home (spouse, and children, DSL but no cable means it makes sense) but I typically keep the ringer off and won't answer it myself. And if you call my cell phone, I'd better recognize the number or you'll get sent to voicemail.

    The business lines are another matter entirely. Those lines are for customers to call and are answered promptly during business hours or with voicemail after hours.

    And I guess that hints at the bottom line... My phones are for friends to call if it is urgent or expected, and for me to make the rare call to a friend when it is urgent or expected or to call businesses.

  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2010, at 8:11 PM, CMFStan8331 wrote:

    I still have a landline at home, but it's only because I bought an Ooma VOIP phone that's not costing me any monthly fee. If it was a choice of paying $30+ a month for a landline, I would probably do without. I don't talk to many people often on the phone - texting and social networks can replace calls to a significant extent, but of the few people I do talk to often, the calls tend to be fairly long. That's due in no small part to the fact that I'm essentially never paying any per minute fees to make voice calls.

    Over time, as home phone users become more tech-savvy and wireless data networks continue to grow in size and speed, I expect to see more and more voice traffic shifting to VOIP.

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