Earlier this week, WhatsApp announced a new feature on its iPhone app – free voice calling. Android folk will have already seen the update, and the iPhone version is now slowly rolling out too.
What it means is that yet another messaging app - and WhatsApp is a biggie, with 800 million active users - is letting us talk to our family and friends without having to dip into our minutes and texting allowance.
Does that mean, then, that we could use a phone that had only a data allowance, and no calling or SMS capabilities? Well, potentially… yes. At the time of writing, there's no such thing as a phone deal that offers mobile broadband and nothing else - but we're at a point where it could actually be a viable business model, at least in terms of technology and how we're using our phones.
Basically, we're internetoholics when it comes to our phones. Data has become the most important thing we look for in a new mobile contract - in a 2013 survey, 43% of people said it was their biggest consideration when choosing a new one, ahead of calling and texting allowances. And that was two years ago, long before WhatsApp's big $19 billion takeover that propelled it to household name status. We're eating up even more data now - Americans use an average of 2GB per month (double what it was a year ago), for instance, which can't be far off what us Brits are using.
Voice calling via apps and VoIP (voice over IP) is hardly new. Skype has been around since the dawn of time (well okay, 2003), and apps like Facebook Messenger, Viber, and Google Voice are on millions of our smartphones. So, using 4G or Wi-Fi to phone someone isn't exactly weird any more. And mobile broadband is very much established, in the form of dongles and portable Wi-Fi hubs, so it's not like a 4G-only contract is too peculiar either.
Of course, there are still a lot of numbers we need to phone that don't have our favourite messenger apps installed. Emergency services, for instance, and most offices. And not to mention your dear old gran, and that one hipster friend who refuses to update from his Nokia 3310. But even then, the apps have you covered - Viber and Skype are completely capable of calling landlines, and at tariffs that are on par with a lot of mobile networks. Think 1-2p per minute for a call to a landline.
The upshot of all this is: Yep, you could survive pretty comfortably on a data-only phone plan if you really wanted to. The main issue is that the rest of the world hasn't really caught up yet; those stragglers without smartphones would be difficult enough to deal with, but on top of that there aren't any phone contracts to cover you.
And given how important data allowances are to us, it's kind of bizarre that not all networks are putting that at the forefront of their business plans right now. Three has the right idea with its heavy focus on data, and EE is doing well with its wide 4G coverage, but it's pretty odd that a lot of networks don't even offer unlimited data, for example.
Perhaps the influx of VoIP will switch things around and get providers focusing on data. And who knows, maybe we're on the cusp of a new era where old-timey phone calls become obsolete - or maybe this is just another trend we'll soon get tired of. Only time will tell.