I woke up from a dream this morning with an idea that, at least lying awake in bed in a haze of drowsiness, I thought was pretty clever. Though I don't remember what the dream was about, the idea goes like this.
So here's part one of my suggestion: Just program the phone company's computers so that all regular phone numbers start with a 1. Period.
Basically, this would turn all 10-digit phone numbers into 11-digit numbers beginning with 1.
Now, carrying that thought further, suppose you used different prefixes to accomplish different things. "1" could designate a regular phone call. "2" could prompt the phone company to send you directly to the voice mail account associated with the number. Having an account set up to go with each number is another problem. Maybe at first it'll be on you to know whether there is one or not, at risk of having a tone blared in your ear followed by an error message. But if there is a voice mail account on the number, even the phone's user could dial directly into it and then punch in a PIN during the outgoing message to log into their account.
"3" could be to use voice recognition software to convert your voice message into a text or an email associated with the phone number, with the same caveat as to whether such a texting or email account exists. This prefix could also be used for TTY calls, text telephones for the hearing impaired.
I don't know what all the one-digit prefixes could be used for at this point. I imagine you might want to keep 0 for the operator, 4 for information, 9 for emergencies and 8 for toll-free calls. Maybe 7 could be pay-by-the-minute calls, like tech support hotlines, psychic advisers and telepimping. That still leaves 5 and 6 for unforeseen applications, or to catch the overflow of cell numbers. But with a whole prefix set aside for, say, information, you could bring a lot more research applications within the fingertips of a telephone user than just looking up listed land-line numbers. Each cell provider could provide listings of its users. Government agencies could have their own prefix, or maybe one for agency phone numbers and one for research hotlines available for their use only. There could be a prefix for reverse-directory lookups of a given phone number.
Maybe all these ideas are past their time. With smart phones and devices, people may soon learn to get by without dialing phone numbers at all. Everything will be a hot link, designed by their smart device's visual interface to look like a button labeled with the name of a person or organization; you poke that spot on the touch-screen and it dials for you without troubling you to note the seven, ten, or eleven digit number it just dialed. Phone numbers could be going the way of IP addresses - those strings of numbers that designate each device connected to the web. Unless one has a very technical web-related job, one rarely has to look up that number and would probably have to look it up if asked for it. The IP number is embedded in code most of us never look at, represented by graphic buttons and whatnot.
One day, maybe soon, your phone number could be like that. You'll share phone numbers the way people today send each other an email just so they have their address. But when all devices, including phones, become roughly equivalent, will there be enough numbers to go around? That's where planning to add prefixes to make sense of the chaos might make sense.