T-Mobile's Digits brings phone calls and texts into the 21st century, but at a time when people care little about those things, will it make a difference?
T-Mobile has unveiled a new service called Digits, making phone numbers less reliant on a SIM card, and expanding the simple phone number into the smartphone age.
But for all of its big talk, Digits is a bit confusing, so let's break it down.
What is Digits?
At its core, Digits is T-Mobile's way of utilizing its new IMS (IP Media Subsystem) backend to dynamically direct calls to any device, or store multiple numbers on a single device.
Basically, without the technical mumbo jumbo, it's a way to free the phone number from its legacy place, and to utilize the flexibility data-based nature of Voice over LTE and Voice of Wi-Fi to allow a call to take place, or to be received, in the most convenient place. This is very similar to Google Voice, and to many other Voice over IP services like Viber and Skype, but T-Mobile has one major advantage: it owns the network, and it distributes the phones.
So what can Digits really do for me?
Provided you're on one of T-Mobile's compatible postpaid plans (yes, this is yet another way for T-Mobile to upsell you), Digits can make it easier to manage phone calls in the increasingly inevitable situation you have multiple devices.
The basic idea is that if you receive a call on your traditional T-Mobile number, your phone should ring, along with any device — another phone, a computer, a tablet, even a connected smartwatch — at the same time. You can also make calls from any of those same devices without your phone nearby, and without the need to have a SIM card.
A secondary but for many people equally important feature is the ability to have more than one number available on a single device. So instead of having separate personal and work phones, you can have a single smartphone make and receive calls from two or more numbers.
This sounds a lot like Google Voice
Yes, it does. The major difference here is that T-Mobile is committing to a couple of things that even Google, which creates both Android and Google Voice, can't do:
- It is integrating Digits directly into the Android phones it sells, working with manufacturers like Samsung to seamlessly add Digits support into devices like the Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S7 and Gear S3.
- It is making it easy to do so-called "SIM replication," which allows you to duplicate a phone number onto a second device, such as another smartphone or a connected smartwatch.
This is in addition to the Google Voice-like Digits app that's available for Android and iOS, to make and receive calls and texts from any device, anywhere. There's also a Digits portal on the web for people who sit in front of a computer all day and want to be able to initiate communications that way. And because the app is available natively and through an app, devices with SIM cards from AT&T, Verizon or Sprint — any carrier, really — can access Digits messages. If you lose your phone, for instance, you can download the Digits app onto a friend's device and make and receive calls and texts from there, too.
Like many cross-platform messaging services, call logs and messages also sync in real-time between devices, which is a huge boon to productivity if you don't always have your phone in front of you.
It's tailor-made for Android
Android is the only platform on which T-Mobile can rely to help Digits grow.
Digits is a cross-platform play, sure, but it is tailor-made for Android. Not only does iOS have its own cross-device communications protocol in iMessage, which may mess with Digits' ability to route texts, but Apple doesn't allow for any system-level alterations, rendering one of Digits' primary use cases moot.
Indeed, Android is the only platform on which T-Mobile can rely to help Digits proliferate, but by potentially limiting half of the population to merely an app-based experience, it is almost immediately cut off at the proverbial knees. Still, Digits has a five-device limit, and can easily be tuned to be used on an iPhone or iPad, especially since as of iOS 10 VoIP apps can take over the lock screen like a regular dialer.
The best Digits experience will always be on Android, and initially is only natively available on the Samsung Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge, Galaxy S6 edge +, Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge or Note 5 purchased through T-Mobile.
So should I sign up?
Digits, while free during the beta period, won't be afterwards, and T-Mobile isn't saying how much it will cost.
Digits is an intriguing product, and an example of what it looks like when a carrier turns next-generation core technology like IMS and HLR (which works to virtualize SIM data on the core network) into something that is truly compelling to consumers.
There are a couple of caveats, though: Digits, while free during the beta period, will not be afterwards, and T-Mobile isn't saying how much it will cost. It's likely going to be just a few dollars per month, but users already need to have one of the carrier's postpaid plans such as T-Mobile One or Simple Choice. And only the primary account holder can actually sign up for a second line in order to carry two on a single device; secondary users can merely share their existing number across multiple devices.
During the beta period, which is indeterminate but should go into next year, T-Mobile will ask users to provide feedback on the service. This is a complicated thing, despite its upfront simplicity, and bugs will need to be worked out.
In the long run, though, Digits is coming to market at a time when the phone number is likely the least important aspect of a smartphone user's experience. Data, and the avenues to the internet it provides, is the backbone of the mobile experience. Phone calls and rich texts sent over a carrier network, even one as advanced as T-Mobile's, still feel somewhat anachronistic.
Nonetheless, the Digits beta seems like a great option for T-Mobile users running select Samsung phones on Android, and we look forward to trying it out!
See Digits at T-Mobile