Greg Cohn at Ad Hoc Labs.

Greg Cohn at Ad Hoc Labs. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Calls up

Burner’s growth comes alongside the rising popularity of other calling-related apps, which in total have altered the mobile phone industry. “Over-the-top” services such as Mountain View’s Whatsapp Inc. and Marina del Rey’s TextPlus Inc. have given users the ability to make free app-to-app calls.

The immense success of those apps has forced mobile companies to alter their revenue models – where they once raked in cash by charging for text messages and calling minutes, they now focus largely on data usage accumulated when smartphone apps connect to the Internet.

“History shows us that unlimited offerings never work out over the long term,” said Jan Dawson, a telecom analyst at London research firm Ovum. “Charging for data is the way it’s going to be from here on out.”

Burner’s approach in many ways splits the difference between Whatsapp and its ilk and traditional calling. Texting on a Burner number counts against a user’s data, but all calling is through a phone’s minutes.

Hushed, a Canadian competitor to Burner, runs entirely over data streams and pitches itself as an international alternative with service in more than 40 countries.

Ad Hoc execs said they are considering changing Burner calls to be datacentric as well, but have no official plans.

Dawson sees the success of Burner as part of a spectrum of calling apps that have given people more freedom in how they use their phones.

“It’s great for certain applications like online dating,” he said. “If someone creeps you out, just cut off the number. It’s handy for that kind of thing.”

Cohn laughs about the online dating thing; it seems to be one of the biggest uses for Burner, although as a longtime married man, he’s yet to try it himself (Carter, his co-founder, has).

There are some worries for Burner as the company grows.

If people continue to rack up temporary phone numbers in the way Ad Hoc executives expect, couldn’t a new Burner number still be haunted by a previous owner’s spurned date or telemarketer?

Cohn brushes aside those concerns. All numbers must lie fallow for a certain length of time before getting reintroduced into the system. He conceded there’s a small chance that even with such a precaution a Burner line can attract some wrong numbers.

But, as he explained, “it’s the case with any phone line. There’s no such thing as a truly virgin number.”

As a measure of how confident Cohn is that Ad Hoc’s vision of phone numbers is the future, he said he’s replaced his iPhone’s native calling app with Burner. It’s a move he equates to how people began adopting webmail service such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail in the late 1990s.

“People used to rely only on the email address from their Internet service provider,” Cohn said. “Once they realized how much freedom they had with the alternatives, they switched almost immediately.”