T-Mobile’s ‘game changer’ Digits service separates phone numbers from devices, but iPhone support missing

T-Mobile said its new Digits service will allow customers to receive calls from work and personal numbers on the same device. Image: T-Mobile

T-Mobile US today announced a new service called Digits that the company said will allow customers to move their phone number to different devices including tablets, wearables and computers. Users will also be able to put multiple numbers on one device, thereby allowing them to receive work and personal calls through the same phone, for example.

“Digits will work on virtually any Internet-connected device—smartphone, feature phone, wearable, tablet or computer,” T-Mobile wrote in a release announcing the service. “So you can make and take calls and texts on whatever device is most convenient. Just log in and, bam, your call history, messages and even voicemail are all there. And it’s always your same number, so when you call or text from another device, it shows up as YOU.”

The carrier, the nation’s third-largest wireless network operator, said the service is available for free as a beta offering to its customers. The offering is built into the native dialer on newer Samsung smartphones like the Note 5 and Galaxy S6, and is also available through an app for iOS and Android on other phones. It can also work through the internet browsers on PCs or Mac computers. “T-Mobile is already working with other device makers to integrate DIGITS natively into their devices,” the carrier added.

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“Moving from home phone to mobile meant you no longer call a location, now we will call a person, not a device,” tweeted Strategy Analytics analyst Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, who called the service a “game changer.”

T-Mobile said it developed the offering via an “entirely new IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) service management layer and Identity Management solution.”

“There is real innovation here, though—T-Mobile has used industry standard technology like IMS and the HLR function as enablers, but has added its own special sauce to create a new device-independent approach to phone numbers, and that’s impressive,” wrote Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson. “T-Mobile claims that it would take years for competing carriers to replicate this approach, and they’re probably right. As such, this is a unique technology and service that T-Mobile can use as a competitive differentiator, to the extent that it’s appealing to potential customers.”

Dawson also noted that the feature will likely be added to additional Android phones, but that “it’s going to be very tough” to get the feature embedded into Apple’s iPhone; Apple is famously reluctant to have wireless carriers and others make changes to the core of its iPhone iOS operating system.

“That’s going to make iPhone users second-class citizens for the service for the foreseeable future, but it’s also less likely that iPhone customers would be interested, given their access to FaceTime and iMessage, as well as Handoff and other features which make cross-device use easy,” Dawson wrote. “I see the multiple device features mostly as a loyalty play, although T-Mobile will pick up some new customers attracted by the feature too.”

The offering is similar to AT&T’s NumberSync, unveiled last year, which lets customers share their primary phone number with other connected devices even if their phone isn't connected to a cellular network.

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