The Home Phone Is Back!

Google’s new Gmail phone service makes calling anywhere from home cheap and crystal clear.

Among the many prophecies that techies take for granted, none seem more certain than the death of the home phone. Just look at that sorry thing, if you even still have one: Your landline remains fixed in a single spot; it can’t text, take pictures, access the Web, or play games; and it’s plagued by telemarketers and robocalls. Since most people find it impossible to navigate modern life without a cell phone—and because it’s expensive and somewhat redundant to have both a landline and a cell plan—it’s no surprise that people are ditching their home phones in droves. In 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than 5 percent of American adults got by with only a cell phone. By 2009, that number was nearly 23 percent—and the agency found that the rate at which people are abandoning landlines is increasing.

I suspect, though, that many people who cancel their landlines experience pangs of regret. The cell phone, after all, has its own problems. There’s a good chance it doesn’t work very well in your home or office. Even when it doesn’t drop calls or take 30 seconds to connect, the quality of voice calls can range from “guy stuck in a car wash” to “guy stuck in a car wash with the windows rolled down and the radio blaring.” In these moments, it’s hard not to miss the trusty old home phone.

That explains why I haven’t joined the ranks of the landline-less. Instead, I pay the phone company about $20 a month to get a very basic plan, and then I use the home phone in conjunction with various Internet services to make very cheap calls. The service I use most often is Google Voice, which does several amazing things. It gives me a single number that rings all my phones, it transcribes my voicemail, and it lets me respond to text messages in my e-mail. Best of all, it lets me make calls through my home phone over Google’s servers, which is cheaper than dialing directly. There’s no charge to sign up for Google Voice, and it lets me call anyone in the United States and Canada for free; international calls are very cheap. (I also often use Skype on my iPhone, which, in my house, sounds much better than my iPhone.)

On Wednesday, Google merged Google Voice with Gmail, building a phone in your inbox. After downloading a small app, Gmail users in the United States will now be able to dial standard phones from their e-mail. (The feature is rolling out gradually, so you may have to wait a few days for it to work on your account.) You don’t need a phone to do it; instead, Gmail turns into a speakerphone using your computer’s microphone and speakers. (You’ve probably got all the necessary hardware built into your laptop; if you’re on a desktop, you can get a USB headset.)

Gmail’s new calling feature in action.

In my tests, the new service worked easily and flawlessly. You simply type a number or contact’s name into the new Gmail calling-pane and hit “Call.” Google’s engineers built a sophisticated echo-cancellation algorithm into the system, so calls sound clear even when you’re not using a headset. You don’t need a Google Voice number to make outbound calls from Gmail, but if you want to receive calls, you’ll need to be a Voice user. (Sign up here.) When someone calls your Google Voice number, you can answer in Gmail in addition to all your phones. All of Google Voice’s call features work inside Gmail—you can jump into a call while someone is leaving you a voicemail, you can record your calls, and you can switch calls between Gmail and another phone while you’re in the middle of a call. (For now, the service is available on the desktop version of Gmail, not the mobile version; it also hasn’t been rolled out to anyone outside the United States or to Google Apps, the business version of Gmail. Google has hinted that it will make the service available to these other users at some point.)

The most interesting thing about Gmail calling is what it tells us about the future of the home phone. Yes, people are ditching their landlines. But that doesn’t mean that cell phones will replace home phones—for now and for the foreseeable future, in fact, cell service is likely to remain one of the buggiest and most expensive ways to make calls when you’re at home.

Instead, the future of the home phone lies in calls routed through the Internet using services like Skype and Google Voice. Soon, with innovations like the one Google built into Gmail, you’ll be able to make calls from pretty much every device in your home—not just your smartphone, laptop, or desktop, but also your tablet computer, your digital music player, your TV, your stereo, and probably your toaster. Indeed, a lot of this is already possible; you can make Skype calls on your iPad or iPod Touch, for instance. What we’ll see over the next few years is a more seamless transition between these devices—you’ll be able to answer a call from your TV and then switch it to your cordless, say—and, over time, the general merger between the Web and your phone. Your contacts will move easily between all your devices, so you’ll never have to remember a phone number again.

We can even begin to imagine the end of phone numbers. The phone service of the future might allow you to call a friend’s Facebook profile or his e-mail address rather than an arbitrary string of digits; he’ll see your Facebook profile on his Caller ID. (Will you be able to call any stranger’s Facebook profile? This will be one of those social dilemmas prompted by new technology. Perhaps the rule could be that if you call someone on Facebook that you’re not friends with, the call will go straight to voicemail.) As your phone gets more mashed up with the Internet, you’ll be able to do everything with your phone calls that you’re used to doing with e-mail or other Web messaging services. Not too long from now it will be easy to record and automatically transcribe all your calls, rendering every phone conversation searchable. (The only problem there, again, would be a social one; how quickly will we adjust to the possibility that every one of our calls is being recorded?)

At the same time that home phone service gets better, it will keep getting cheaper. You will never again need to pay anything to call anyone in the United States, either in dollars or minutes. International calls will fast approach free for most countries that are well-wired with the Internet; only the most remote or internationally isolated places, like Nauru and North Korea, will remain expensive to call. Don’t expect the same thing to happen on cell phones; even as smartphones keep getting better, domestic calls will still run up airtime, and international calls over your cell plan will continue to command hefty rates.

In a survey conducted in April, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to rate which of several accoutrements of modern life rank as “necessities.” The answers weren’t very surprising—86 percent of people called an automobile necessary, and a majority said they also couldn’t do without a clothes dryer or home air conditioning. There was one stat, though, that caught my eye—62 percent said they needed a landline phone. That beat out the home computer (49 percent), the microwave (45 percent), and even the cell phone (47 percent).

Many people still love their home phones. And thanks to the Internet, they won’t have to part with it any time soon. Slate V’s Killer Apps: Create Your Own Virtual Cloud

Become a fan of Slate and Farhad Manjoo on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.