T-Mobile this morning unveiled Digits, a new technology that lets customers use the same phone number across a variety of internet-connected devices as well as add multiple numbers to one phone.
In what amounts to a re-interpretation of the mobile number, the company says Digits will work with any device, from smartphones and tablets to computers and smart watches, and even old-school flip phones. Digits works across multiple carriers like AT&T and Verizon, and users can also log in on various internet browsers.
Once users put their number on a device, they will be able to access calls, texts and voicemails the same way they can jump around with emails and programs like Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger. That also means when someone calls, all devices will go off in a cacophony of notification.
“Since the beginning of telephones one number has been tied to one phone and one phone has been tied to one number,” T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “In mobile, that number has always been seared to that SIM chip, and there was only one way we could route calls and messages to you and that was using the data in that SIM chip. We’ve changed everything today.”
T-Mobile is building Digits into various Samsung devices and working to get it on other devices. In the meantime, Digits has an app for Android and iOS devices.
T-Mobile put out a promotional video to hype Digits, featuring Sievert and CTO Neville Ray breaking down the technology in a tone that has become custom for a company that drops F bombs on a semi-regular basis, using terms like “Advanced AF” and that Digits is a “BFD” to caption and translate the technical language for viewers.
T-Mobile says it is looking for customers to beta test Digits program and give feedback. Digits will be released commercially for all customers early next year.
T-Mobile isn’t talking about pricing right now, but Sievert and Ray did say on the conference call that it will be “disruptive” and each number won’t be treated like a new line. An AT&T or Verizon customers who want to use Digits will need some sort of T-Mobile relationship, but Sievert said they likely won’t have to get a full on mobile plan.
AT&T has a similar program, NumberSync, but Sievert and Ray say Digits goes a lot further. They called NumberSync a “one-number story” that doesn’t let people put multiple numbers on the same device and doesn’t have the same freedom to move across different device types and manufacturers.
T-Mobile thinks Digits will bring in new customers as well as make their current users happy. Sievert and Ray envisioned many uses of the service. It will make it easier to have multiple devices — such as a small, rugged phone for outdoor adventures, a big tablet for travel and a smartphone for business — for specific occasions, or to do everything on one device. They think it will also make T-Mobile more attractive to businesses, allowing employees to carry a single device if they want, rather than one phone for personal use and another for business. It could also help businesses move to a mobile-first model, where a business’ central number can go to multiple employee phones rather than a landline.
To make Digits work, Ray said T-Mobile completely redid how phone calls are made and received on its network. It uses whichever carrier the customer is on for signal, rather than a data connection like online calling services like Skype. Contacts, voicemails and texts are stored in the cloud.
“It’s no small feat to break a 100-year-old paradigm in the phone industry about a real phone number,” Ray said. “Our work here touches nearly every single part of T-Mobile’s network, and we’ve created several new patent-pending technologies as we’ve developed our Digits product.”
T-Mobile fashions itself as the “Un-carrier,” a rebel within the telecom business, dropping new innovations with a goal of shaking up the industry. Though not an official “Un-carrier Move,” Digits is the latest example of that ethos. T-Mobile’s past big moves include eliminating long-term contracts and data buckets.