Cell Phones: The Long Constant March

March 15, 2006 (You have to date entries like this so you can get the historical context weeks later when they are obsolete): Why do we buy so damned many cell phones?

It used to be that when you needed a phone you saved up for it, went to your local hardware/department store and brought home a 10lb brick of a phone and it lasted forever. Really, we all know someone, either an older relative or a thrift-store surfer who has the old rotary phone, or the first-gen button phone in their home, that still works — bell ringer and all.

I bought my first cell phone somewhere in the vicinity of 1997. It lasted me two years then there was a fancy new James-bond like flip phone that I just had to have. Did it have any tangible improvements? Well, it was a little smaller, and the screen wouldn’t scratch when closed and that was good enough for me. I forget how much I plunked down for it, but the way cell phone companies work, you pretty much double the advertised price of any phone (even if on sale and even with the signed service agreement) — there are a lot of service and activation charges, taxes, blah blah blah.

This phone lasted three years, which was the longest I’ve owned any single cell phone to date. It survived through four batteries and two antennas (they used to be extendible and very delicate when unsheathed). The reason for the upgrade? Well, everyone was starting to do this “text messaging” system and it seemed very useful. I also *really* liked the idea of Bluetooth syncing of my address book with my computer. So the deal was made and my new phone was plugged into the network.

Though I wasn’t shopping for a phone with a camera, mine came with one. The quality is so bad that it is actually hilarious, and the blues are always off. I’ve affectionately referred to it as my “digital lomo”. So the phone is great, I can make calls with it, text, Bluetooth sync my calendar and contacts… but of course the internal memory was rather small so not all of my contacts will fit in it. I’d also now like to play music files on it as many phones on the market can today…

You can see where this is going.

The march of the cellphones (and digital convergence) is not a conspiracy, WE are the ones paying for their R&D by continuing to upgrade our phones every year or two — sometimes at a ridiculous cost.

If you want the phone you’ve always imagined (and with each new feature you get the next one becomes easier and easier to imagine, doesn’t it?) then all you have to do is buy the one that’s close to feed the machine and it will spit out your dream in 6-12months, by which time you’ll want even more.

At some point, there is the potential for phone sales to stall while manufacturers toe the chasm between “convergence phone” on one side (adding all the features that are easy, one at a time to keep sales high) and actual computer phones on the other.

Both sides will represent different kinds of people and likely the “phone” side will stagnate and become the side that gives you “free” phones when you sign up for plans; already there is a group of die-hard cell phone users that only want their phone to be… a phone.

The other group wants to push phones as far as they can go — but would they stop at live 3D holograms of the people they are talking to? That is yet to be seen, but there’s no reason to think that this side of the chasm will want to sit for long when there are so many new and amazing things you’ll be able to do with these portable supercomputers.

The long and the short of it is that for the time being cell phone manufacturers and distributors are completely addicted to this extra revenue stream of phone sales and it’s not likely that they’ll quiet down about the newest phone and flog you with advertisements and promotions to lure you into buying.

Before we get too excited and look at our existing phone as “obsolete” and not worthy of keeping, let’s consider what modern cell phones can actually do, and what features they have that people actually use:

Today’s cell phone can:

  • Place and receive phone calls from almost anywhere
  • Send and receive text messages (useful if you need to contact someone while they’re in a meeting and can’t have their ringer on)
  • Use GPS to find you if you call 911
  • Let you talk using a wireless headset for freedom of movement
  • Browse the web

Today’s cell phones have replaced these items that would otherwise be on your desk:

  • Digital Camera
  • Rolodex
  • Phone book
  • Calculator
  • Mp3 player
  • Stopwatch
  • Timer
  • Alarm clock
  • Big, clunky desk phone (many cell phones have a speakerphone
  • Watch (cell phones sync with network time and daylight savings
  • Note pad and pen
  • Long-distance calling cards (long distance is included with calling plans
  • Camcorder (for short 30-second recordings)
  • Calendar
  • Wires and cables (Bluetooth to transfer files, though still USB to charge some phones)

Tomorrow’s cell phones will replace:

  • Computers (you’ll be able to “dock” them into KVM)
  • DVD players
  • Game consoles (you’ll emulate or play native when phones run Linux/WinX/MacOSX)
  • GPS Devices (get realtime maps)

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