Ina Fried

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Mr. Number Aims to Make Unwanted Cell Phone Calls a Thing of the Past

For years, Jason Devitt was best known as the founder of Vindigo, an early pioneer in the mobile app space and the creator of one of the first location-based apps, a city guide for the Palm Pilot. Now he’s trying to reinvent himself as Mr. Number.

Devitt is CEO of a small Bay Area company that has quietly built a business around blocking unwanted calls and offering caller ID for numbers that would ordinarily not be listed. Mr. Number, the name of the start-up, does this by asking users to opt-in and share their address books for the sole purpose of allowing Mr. Number to identify incoming calls to other members.

As a result, the service can identify an estimated 70 percent of incoming phone calls in the United States. Mr. Number also uses crowdsourcing to identify and block telemarketing and other unwanted phone calls.

“It turns out there is a big problem out there and it is larger than you would expect,” Devitt told Mobilized earlier this week. Some 50 million calls a day in the U.S. come from telemarketers, with still more coming from scams, harassing bill collectors and other unwanted callers, Devitt said.

The result is that Mr. Number now has some 2 million users for its service, which helps smartphone owners weed out such calls. Many use a free version of the service, though the company also has paid versions with prices reaching as high as $9.95 a month. The 10-person company has a decent (though unspecified) amount of revenue, Devitt said, but is not yet profitable.

There are versions of Mr. Number for BlackBerry, Android and iPhone, though the features vary, in large part because Apple restricts how much access developers have, particularly to the phone stream itself. So while BlackBerry and Android users can see who is calling and block unwanted calls entirely, iPhone users can only retrospectively identify who has called.

With Android and BlackBerry, Mr. Number has both paid and free versions, while the iPhone app is a low-cost paid app for doing reverse number lookups.

On Wednesday, Mr. Number is announcing a new addition to its service–a feature that allows users to share their status, allowing friends also on the service to know whether they are available for a call, only really looking for texts or totally tied up. The hope, Devitt said, is that the new service will make people feel more comfortable calling people.

“There’s no easy way to know a good time to call someone,” Devitt said. When phones were rooted in the house, things were simpler. If someone was out doing something, they wouldn’t be bothered, while if they heard the phone ringing, they were at home. With a cell phone, you never know where someone is when you call them. Devitt said he calls people less frequently these days, assuming quite reasonably that they are probably busy doing something else.

Devitt said the new service will allow the company to have a free iPhone app, but even there it can’t do all the things that the Android version can, such as automatically change a user’s status when they pick up the phone. And when a user changes their status to “do not disturb” on Android, Mr. Number can mute the phone’s ringer, an option Apple does not allow.

If the current product seems a bit narrow, Devitt insists that is just where Mr. Number is starting.

“We actually have a broader vision than that,” he said. “The people you comm with on your phone are your true social network. We’re very interested in the set of circumstances we can construct around that.”

Asked whether he has any regrets about getting out of the location-based services game so early, Devitt notes that he sold his company and made money for both himself and his investors. Devitt sold Vindigo to a Japanese company in 2004, though it was later shut down.

“It would have nagged me a lot more if we hadn’t sold it and made money,” Devitt said. “I prefer to take pleasure that we were very far ahead in our thinking.”

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