Burner App Offers Alias Phone Numbers Powered by Twilio

People have a million reasons to mask their phone number. Have you tried shopping on Craigslist? You probably wish you had a way to get those concert tickets you wanted without giving out your number to a person you don’t know.  Now there’s Burner, an app that allows you to create an alias for your phone number.

With the app, users can create a new number in any area code that lets them utilize it like it was their own number. Inbound and outbound for both SMS and calls, including voicemail, are in control of the user until the number is “burned”. We can think of a ton of ways to use the app and people are already using Burner to fight crime, like these guys who used the app to catch a bike thief.

We talked with Greg Cohn, Co-Founder and CEO of Adhoc Labs / creators of Burner, about the inspiration behind the app, the explosive launch and the future of phone numbers.

What was your inspiration for Burner?

Co-founder & CEO, Greg Cohn

We built the basic burner concept as a feature on another app we were prototyping. The idea was users would post that they were available for “office hours,” and we would create a number, post it to a user’s Twitter or Facebook, and manage calls in a formal queue.  Our test users really just responded to the idea of creating numbers to the point that we just started saying to ourselves, “we should really just built that,” even while we were testing the initial app. We nicknamed it “burner” internally, and the name just sort of stuck. When we tested other naming concepts out, people kept saying, “You mean like a burner?”

One of the things that’s exciting about it is that it’s a “blank canvas” app — one of those concepts that just sparks people’s imaginations in a bunch of different ways.

How exactly does it work?

When a user creates a Burner, we hit the Twilio API, grab a new phone number and assign it to the user. Inbound calls will get forwarded to the user’s real cell phone, unless they turn the ringer off, in which case it goes to a generic voicemail box, and we deliver messages as as audio files. Outbound calls bring up the dialer and call the burner number, which we patch through to the number the user is trying to call — so the person being called sees the Burner as the caller ID. SMS works similarly, though asynchronously and via the app rather than the user’s real phone number.

The best feature, of course, is the “burn” button — which the user can tap at any time, and we take the line out of service instantly and delete the line’s history from the phone.

All of the settings, messages, outbound calls, and voicemails are accessed and managed via the Burner app, each number within its own sandbox.

Twilio handles all of our number provisioning, call connections, the SMS delivery, and the voicemail capture — quite gracefully, I might add.

Burner is a new way to utilize phone numbers, what do you see as the future of phone numbers and communications?

Well, right now there are more mobile phones than people in the U.S., so that’s a lot of phone numbers that didn’t exist before, and it’s a great, well-understood, open and interoperable architecture for communications that has clearly stood the test of time.  On the other hand, the plain old telephone system isn’t very smart — there really hasn’t been much in the way of consumer-facing innovation in it since caller ID.

We think the future of communications is much more of a socially aware, privacy-aware “smart” network.  Technologies like SIP, smartphone apps, social utilities, and the interoperable web in general are making it possible to layer a lot more intelligence on top of this network to enable that.  So we see Burner as this kind of smart hybrid application and expect to be part of driving that future.  We also think Twilio has a big part in enabling that future.

What’s next for Burner and Ad Hoc Labs?

The great thing about launching is we get to hear lots of user feedback.  There’s just a ton of demand for international expansion and for an android version, so both of these are on our minds.  We also have some interesting features in the works that we’ll have to save for a future blog post. ;-)

You can download Burner in the iTunes App Store here.

  • Ed Davis

    Really cool app, definitely inspiring to see things like this being built with Twilio. Just curious if someone could provide more clarification as to what actually happens when you “burn” a number, from the article they say “we take the line out of service instantly”. What does that mean exactly, can the number be re-provisioned to another user? Or is it lost forever – doubt it’s the latter but I could be wrong.

    Good stuff guys, thanks for everything you’re doing!