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Sprinting beyond telephone numbers with app-enabled voice communication

by Kevin Maney

In a low-key announcement the day after AT&T (T) agreed to buy T-Mobile, Sprint literally ushered in the next era of wireless.

Sprint (S) is partnering with Google (GOOG), and making any Sprint phone number a Google Voice number. So the number will be your cell phone number, but also integrate with all things Google – allowing you, for instance, to make calls from any device connected to the web, get voice messages through Gmail, and set up different voice mail greetings for different callers.

But really, Sprint is thinking like a next-generation, post-iPhone wireless carrier. Sprint had already gone to single-bucket billing – $99 gets you all the voice minutes, data usage and text messages you can eat. Now it’s essentially dropping the ruse that calls are anything more than another use of data.

The next logical step for Sprint then is: why bother messing with phone numbers and voice mail and all that other stuff at all? Sprint is just selling you a wireless data connection for your device. Period. All the voice stuff becomes an app from Google.

Fewer delays for consumers

The significance of making it an official partnership is that calls to a Google Voice number on a Sprint phone will route directly to the phone instead of circling through a Google server farm, cutting out delays sometimes experienced with Google Voice. Otherwise, Sprint’s move opens up the idea that any developer, from Skype to a startup, can make an app that will become your phone number for your handset and everything else you use to connect to the web.

Google and other tech companies are likely to invest in making voice communication apps more interesting. Today you can find voice apps that translate words into other languages, or let you dictate Twitter feeds that get posted as text. Apple (AAPL) is expected to build more voice control into the next iPhone.

It’s not hard to imagine these capabilities getting integrated. We could wind up with a voice app that lets you speak into your phone to take control of your laptop back home, or automatically translate voice messages left in another language.

Dialing into a new era

The shift will change the way people think about a phone number. A generation ago, a phone number was linked to a place – you called home or called the office. Cell phones ushered in the concept of a phone number linked to a device – you call your mom’s cell. Now a phone number will be in the cloud, accessible anywhere and through anything. The number will be tied to a person, who can configure the app to make it a business number at some times, a personal number at others, all depending on who is calling and when.

Voice communication has been moving this way for a decade, pushed by Skype and other VoIP companies. The Sprint-Google deal throws it over the tipping point. Before long, big players like Verizon Wireless (VZ) and AT&T are going to have to think the same way.