Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Nightmare Plaxo Signatures - E164 Please

Plaxo is a great idea. A community that started with a simple way to keep business cards up to date. Except that a growing number of people don't know their own phone number.

The problem is that people are updating their phone numbers in Plaxo with the wrong format phone number, which means they no longer work when dialled from a smartphone or from within Outlook. Goodness knows who started it, but it isn't helpful.

James O'Neill started a campaign for real numbers last year. Let him outline the problem.

International calls to the UK don't use the 0. If you call me from abroad you dial your local code for international, followed by 44 for the UK, 118 for reading, 9093080 for my phone at Microsoft. And convention - an ITU standard called E164 - says you write this +44 118 909 3080. The standard doesn't care if I write +441189093080 or +44 (118) 909-3080 spaces dashes and brackets are ignored. E164 numbers dial correctly from mobile phones - even when they've roamed to other countries so to facilitate use outside their home country numbers should be stored in E164 format.

But now the problem

People in Britain have started writing +44 (0) to mean "Dial international followed by +44 outside the UK, and 0 in Britain". Nobody who lives in Britain needs to be told this any more, but it's actually messing up databases. +44 (0) 118 909 3080 looks like a valid E.164 number to people or computers which expect one. Foreigners will dial the 0 and not connect and Smartphones and so forth in the the UK will turn the number into 0 (0) 118 909 3080 - which won't work.

The sickness has spread to other European countries too. The Dutch often use such a notation in business cards. Its coming to a point where I think I'll switch off Plaxo because it is polluting an otherwise correct database. Sadly, this pollution is coming from my own colleages and friends. How do I persuade them to stop it?

For the record....

When "Subscriber Trunk Dialing" was introduced into Britain the Post Office came up with a simple system for long distance codes. A leading zero told the it was calling another exchange. Most of the codes (with exceptions like 01 for London) used names of the telephone exchanges, A, B and C were on 2 on the phone dial so, Bath, Cardiff, Carlisle had codes 022x. R was on 7 so, Bristol Brighton and Bradford had 027x codes. Some were a bit odd - Oxford had 0865 - for university. There have been various re-vamps of the numbering system. London codes split into 071 and 081, then 0171 and 0181, then 020 7 and 020 8. Reading (among others) lost its identifiable number and became 0118 But 0 still tells the system that what follows is an area code.
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