Phones R Us

Mobiles have become essential tools for modern living, from text flirting to calling for help. Tim Luckhurst reports on how handsets took over our lives - and the ways companies plan to keep us hooked
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The Independent Online

Survivors of the rail crash near Reading last Saturday used mobiles to call for help, to contact their relatives and to send pictures from the scene. Some even negotiated their way out of the dark, derailed carriages by the pale glow from their phone screens. A decade ago, mobiles were unwieldy luxuries. Now they are seen as essential tools for survival in the modern world, sometimes literally. We may not understand all that our newfangled phone can do, we may find the latest technology bewildering, we may even resent the intrusion into our peace and privacy, but very few of us could live without a mobile any more. Take, for example, the group of young people who recently agreed to go without their phones for a fortnight as an experiment. They told researchers that their social lives had fallen apart.

Survivors of the rail crash near Reading last Saturday used mobiles to call for help, to contact their relatives and to send pictures from the scene. Some even negotiated their way out of the dark, derailed carriages by the pale glow from their phone screens. A decade ago, mobiles were unwieldy luxuries. Now they are seen as essential tools for survival in the modern world, sometimes literally. We may not understand all that our newfangled phone can do, we may find the latest technology bewildering, we may even resent the intrusion into our peace and privacy, but very few of us could live without a mobile any more. Take, for example, the group of young people who recently agreed to go without their phones for a fortnight as an experiment. They told researchers that their social lives had fallen apart.

When the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced his plan for a revival of "good old-fashioned policing" last week he suggested that citizens should be given their local beat officer's mobile phone number. The bobbies were not enthusiastic: of 55 police stations surveyed by a newspaper, 42 refused to issue numbers on the grounds that officers would be swamped. But the place of the mobile phone in modern law enforcement has become entrenched: investigators have already retrieved valuable information from a phone owned by the driver of the car with which the derailed train collided last Saturday.

Four years ago there were five million mobile phones in Britain. Now there are said to be 50 million. Users at the cutting edge don't chat, however. They text. Ron Willoughby of the charity Base 25, which has just started Text Talk to offer young people advice about sex, says: "Research has found that 96 per cent of young people own mobile phones, regardless of social class, and youngsters are extremely adept at using text messages."

They are equally keen on profitable services including downloaded musical ring tones. Most current pop hits are now available to buy for mobiles, at prices between £1.50 and £3.50. An estimated £70m of ring tones were sold in 2003.

The number of mobile telephones in the world already exceeds the number of fixed phones. By 2007 this country will need 50,000 phone masts. Mobiles are like cars used to be before concern for the environment gave us pause for thought - what the communications scholar Marshall McLuhan once called "an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad and incomplete in the urban compound". When Nokia, Orange and Virgin Mobile turned up at music festivals this summer their presence was considered cool, not intrusive. They were selling icons to believers. That was a triumphant vindication of their marketing strategies - the same strategies that face their biggest challenge yet with the launch of the third generation (3G) phones. In Britain mobile providers have paid £6bn for licences for 3G, which gives more bandwidth and higher connection speeds. Companies including T-Mobile, mmO2, Orange and "3" are praying for a bumper 3G Christmas. But there is no guarantee that they will get one. The term 3G is widely recognised but far fewer people know what it means. In markets including Australia, Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark and Italy, 3G take-up has been well below expectations.

So what does 3G do? Vodafone's chief marketing officer, Peter Bamford, offers a vision: a couple do not know what to do with an evening, so, using their 3G phone, they choose a film by watching various clips from the internet, find out which cinemas are showing it, book tickets and download a map showing them how to find the cinema. It may happen. The difficulty is that the mobile industry has not been brilliant at predicting future use. These days no parent, lover or friend can operate without text messaging. But the text function was one telephone companies did not expect to succeed. They did not spot its potential until users spontaneously seized on it. Now they admit that last year's big thing, picture messaging, has not caught on. That suggests our willingness to go on adopting technology may not be infinite.

Despite the daily use we make of them and the sense of nakedness (freedom?) we feel when we leave them behind, the value of mobiles for most of us is as a communications device, not a merged digital assistant, camera, music player and entertainment centre. So far we have tended to consider these features gimmicks, not practical friends. Many of us already have separate bits of equipment that can also take pictures, play music and keep our diaries, only better.

The market for simple mobile phone use is saturated, so service providers need us all to adopt new uses. But that will require us to discover purposes for our 3G mobiles that neither we nor they have yet contemplated. The target users the phone companies call YAFs (young, active, fun) are being invited to "leap to a whole new lifestyle" but it is not yet plain that 3G will inspire a trend on the scale of the first mobile revolution. Communicating on the move has become second nature but gadgets that perform tricks we do not need are less alluring. Phone companies should remember that third-generation teapot the Teasmade, or the vinyl-roofed car. There is a gap between what technology can do and what we actually want it to do.

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