Vobi is bringing the phone number back – and you thought it never left

By Richard Nieva , written on January 4, 2013

From The News Desk

As hard as Web services and even governments try to secure identity on the Internet, some aspects of online identity are still not quite set in stone. For example, your email address is your rock and unwavering home base – until you switch jobs then loose your domain name. Then you’re back to your personal Gmail or worse, eek!, your old AOL account until you find your next gig.

Usernames for different Web services vary according to each service’s stipulations on minimum number or characters or availability. I rue the day @richardnieva took that Twitter handle before me and I had to tack on a “J” for my middle initial. Your Facebook name is pretty stable, but some people still don’t like using it in a professional capacity – especially if you’ve got one of those middle-name-as-last-name deals.

The point is, online identities are fleeting. So Vobi, an Austin, TX-based collaboration company, is doubling down on the one identifier you’re likely to stick with: your mobile phone number.

Sure, you might change phone numbers for any of number of reasons. But most people don’t. Even if you switch phones, or even carriers -- unlike a decade or two ago -- you port your phone number right over.

Vobi, which closed a $1.5 million Series A from Dallas-based Trailblazer Capital in December, makes enterprise software that competes with Cisco’s WebEx and browser-based services like – anything that facilitates meetings or conference calls. But instead of signing in with an email address or username, your phone number itself is the central point of contact.

For example, if one of your contacts is someone you’ve dealt with in the past – shared files on Dropbox, sent email attachments – all of those things pop up automatically on your tablet when you make a business call. (That’s one of the catches. You’ve got to have a tablet.)

Mark Castleman, Vobi’s founder and chief executive, describes it as turning the phone call itself into the collaboration destination. The idea is a little abstract, but the service is a time saver. Castleman says the company is partnering directly with the major phone carriers, though he won’t say which ones. Among the list of familiar features the carriers provide – call waiting, three-way calling, etc. – Vobi wants to add “collaboration” to the group.

Ironically, the very thing that gives Vobi its edge may also work against the company. Yes, the phone number is secure, unchanging and dependable. But that might be the same reason a person would like to keep it private. It’s not as disposable as an email address, so it’s more precious. Giving out your mobile digits means giving out unfettered access to the thing that you carry around with you for most of the day. Protecting that privacy is one of the reasons services like Google Voice exists. Castleman contends that, in business, you’re probably going to fork over the number sooner or later. “At some point, in order for your phone to ring, you’ve got to give your phone number,” he says.

But alternatives like Skype exist. Castleman says the company will work to expand the service so users have the option of connecting on a desktop or by username as well. But choosing that path makes Vobi like any other collaboration service out there. On the other hand, if you’re okay with giving out your number, it may shave off a few steps during the working process, which is ultimately what collaboration software is designed to do.

[Image courtesy: roberthuffstutter]