Death of the phone book

Early last year, I did a blog entry on the future of the fixed line phone, raising the possibility that they will go the way of the typewriter and buggy whip. In a country where most people now own a mobile phone, fewer are choosing to have landlines in their homes, especially if they don’t run any kind of business from home.

An equally interesting question is the future of the phone book. When was the last time you looked anything up in the phone book? I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I had one. As with most people, I always look up the number on the net. Like the traditional print media, phone books are continuing to die.

The reports on a recent survey done by Harris Interactive found that 70 per cent of adults in the US "rarely or never" use the phone book. That number is likely to increase as more people take to smart phones. Services like Google are a lot easier to use than thumbing your way through a massive tome.

Last week, Telstra subsidiary Sensis announced it was cutting 120 jobs with consumers moving away from away from traditional print-based data such as phone books to online and mobile search technology.

And yet Sensis, which printed about 20 million phone books last financial year - or almost one for every person in the nation of 22.5 million people - says it will contuinue to produce phone books.

“Print directories remain a core part of Sensis’ business and they will continue to play a role in our long-term strategy," a Sensis spokesman said.

"Nowadays, consumers have more choice when it comes to how they search and access information and we expect the use of digital platforms like online, mobile, voice, as well as search engine marketing and tablet devices will continue to increase. Millions of Australian still rely on the print directories each week and in the future we expect that print will continue to complement these digital platforms.”

That’s despite the fact that many phone books end up getting recycled.

So what's the future of the phone book? Check the trend in America where regulators last year approved applications by phone companies to stop distributing residential white pages. It’s not a complete wipe out. Print directories with business and government listings, information pages and yellow pages will still be delivered. But it’s only a matter of time before that goes too, and it’s probably only a matter of time before we see it happening here.

Of course, there are arguments for keeping phone books. There are many people, particularly a large section of the elderly and those in remote locations, who don’t have computer or internet access. And Sensis insists that there are millions who still use the old phone book. That is if you believe the Sensis methodology.

We also have to remember that there are still lots of business that still advertise in the Yellow Pages. They still see it as a worthwhile investment.

An alternative method might be to introduce a system where people can opt-in to receiving the paper phone book, or maybe opt out. That way, those who absolutely need a paper phone book can continue to receive them without wasting too much money printing the damn things.

For sure, this is going to be an issue that will play out over the next few years as we migrate from paper to digital. Think phone books, think newspapers, think financial statements.

When was the last time you used a phone book? Do you think we still need them?