Cellphones: once a status symbol, now a necessity
By Daniel B. Wood
Judy Harger-Gedeon just realized
she has something in common with the short-tailed albatross, the bony-tailed
chub, and the tidewater goby.
Like the others on America's endangered species list, Ms. Harger-Gideon - as
someone who does not yet own her own cellphone - is a member of a fast-vanishing
breed (call it, "personus noncellphonius").
"For all these years, I have been the ultimate Luddite, but even I won't be able
to hold out much longer," says Ms. Harger-Gedeon, a 50-something executive
secretary. "Now, it's becoming much more irresponsible and burdensome - maybe
even impossible - to live in America and not have one."
The notion of the cellphone as necessity may not be universally agreed, but if
you're in doubt about whether the device is transforming American life just try
wresting one away from a teenager you know.
With a popularity and versatility that spans continents and generations, the
cellphone may be on its way to becoming mankind's primary communication
interface and a lifestyle tool that exceeds the personal computer in ubiquity,
say watchers of technology culture.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But the devices, used by 1 billion people worldwide, already
go well beyond voice traffic to serve up everything from stock tips to movie
times and photos of friends. The cellphone's rise is in some ways redefining -
and raising concerns about - solitude, social etiquette, the boundaries of home
and work, and even personal identity.
"The cellphone has moved from a helpful service appliance to a necessity," says
Tom McPhail, a professor of media studies and communication at the University of
Missouri, St. Louis. "Older Americans are realizing they are needlessly cut off
without one, and for youth it has become a part of their persona and identity
without which they feel naked, shunned, or isolated."
If the long-term destiny of pocket-size communication remains still a matter of
forecasts, its present is clearly big business at the very least.
Rumors of a $34 billion merger between Sprint Corp. and Nextel sent shares of
both companies higher late last week. The US Census Bureau recently reported
that wireless revenues passed the $100 billion mark in 2003, rising 14 percent
from the previous year. Some 172 million Americans own cellphones, triple the
number a decade ago. But usage still lags behind much of Europe and parts of
Increasingly, reluctant new purchasers like Ms. Harger-Gedeon are finding they
are laughably behind the curve if they tell the store clerk they simply want a
device to talk into. Consumers are expecting the ability to send text messages,
photographs, scroll news headlines, check the weather, and play videogames -
wherever they happen to be.
"Revenues from the voice side of wireless have plateaued enough that companies
have been racing to continue their income with data services," says Scott Silk,
CEO of Action Engine, a firm that is developing ways for cellphone users to be
one touch-tone away from the Internet. "The real future of the cellphone is
going to be any and everything but voice," says Mr. Silk.
While older Americans like Harger-Gedeon are catching on to the fact that not
having a cellphone could actually be considered socially obtuse ("A call ahead
while stuck in traffic is no longer a courtesy but a given," she says),
teenagers say leaving the house with the cellphone is as basic as having a
wallet or purse and house keys.
"Everybody I know uses it for just everything, everything," says Melinda
Burroughs, a 17-year-old in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Besides keeping her a ring
away from her parents, Melinda says her phone serves as alarm clock and watch.
It lists movies, text messages from friends, and latest sports scores. When
cellphone use reaches a critical mass among teens, say experts, everyone
suddenly has to get one.
While some industry watchers claim one of the fastest-growing groups of users
are those between ages 13-24, exact statistics are scarce because it is still
largely parents who buy them and pay for their use. But whatever the number,
international cellphone use is still outpacing that of the US.
"American teens are just catching up to those in Asia and Europe in using the
cellphone for everything from talking and text messages to games," says Namoi
Baron, Professor of Linguistics at American University. Part of ownership for
the wave of younger buyers is the perceived need to remain a player in the
peer-to-peer communication game. The other is to stay au courant with fads and
styles - amassing more than one phone body, for instance, for use as fashion
accessory or in collecting musical "ring tones." Those are distinctive minisongs
that users stockpile to allow them to identify individual callers, a demand that
has generated a billion-dollar industry (Pop singer P Diddy won a music award
last week for best ring tone).
Nor are the cellphone's new buyers willing to fall behind in the burgeoning
world of global, mobile entertainment - using the cellphone as a nexus for all
kinds of mobile products to consumers from magazines to sports to online books.
This field is expected to generate more than $27 billion in revenue with 2.5
billion users by 2008-2009 according to Airborne Entertainment, which
distributes such brands as A&E, Berlitz, HBO, The History Channel, and NHL to
the mobile marketplace.
One of the growing uses for mobile phones among youth - and generating
innovation for the rest of us - is video games, now at about $100 million in
annual sales and expected to double by next year.
"Gaming is one of the areas that is driving some of the craziest innovations in
cellphone use," says Mitch Lasky, CEO of JAMDAT.mobile, a leading global
wireless publisher. High resolution cameras, liquid crystal screens, faster
processors, and new forms of graphics have all been developed by such firms as
Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola, spilling over into advances for general consumers.
The size, shape, and definition of cellphones will continue to morph as they
become more central in consumer's lives, say experts.
If the meteoric rise in cellphone possibilities are generating great
expectations by new consumers and companies, they are also generating warning
signals in some corners. Talking on the phone while driving has long been a
safety concern. And shrilling rings that shatter the quiet of restaurants or the
enjoyment of a concert audience has been the standard annoyance since cellphones
first proliferated in pockets and handbags. But one of the newest debates swirls
around balancing connectivity with the need for solitude.
"What does 'alone' mean in a wireless world?" asks Dr. Robbie Blinkoff, a
consumer anthropologist who has published several ethnographic studies on
cellphone users, known as "The Mobiles."
Voicing an oft-heard observation, CEO Silk says he recently crossed the Ohio
State campus and couldn't find a teenager without a mobile or music headphone in
their ear. As in decades past, the students did not congregate and share
stories, he says, but rather remained connected to others solely by cellphone.
Other sociologists worry that teens use all their free time messaging or talking
to friends so that they no longer spend enough time in mental solitude crucial
to understanding a separate self, problem solving, and allowing space for
creativity and intuition.
"If you talk to students you often find they have trouble being alone," says
Baron. "Some argue that cellphones make it possible to have larger social safety
net and that that contact is good. I argue that part of what makes a human being
is the ability to be alone with no one to help [think] through a number of
difficult circumstances ... to figure out who [we] are, where [we] want to go,
who [we] want to be. At some point [students] need to stand on their own two
But the need to always be connected to others may naturally settle with time.
"Those who used to complain that they couldn't get away from their boss at work
or find any peace, are doing much better in taking control by turning off their
cellphones whenever they want," says Dr. Blinkoff.