Enrique Dans. Professor. IE Business School
2 February 2010
Many people use their mobile phone for much more than speaking, with the result that mobiles are now designed to fit well in your hands rather than against your ear. They’re no longer phones. They’re computers.
I have always been particularly interested in adaptation processes where technology is concerned, especially those that happen at great speed. And I am lucky enough to live in a time when they happen quite often. Mobile telephones are a clear example: from being somewhat inconvenient and expensive, justifiable only in special cases, we are now in the situation where the number of mobiles in some countries is clearly higher than the number of users. The penetration level of mobile telephones in Spain is greater than 111%. In countries such as the United Kingdom, where it is 122%, and Hong Kong, where it is 150%, citizens presumably carry a mobile phone in each pocket.
However, the way in which they are used is particularly interesting. Many mobile telephone users still use the telephone for its original function, the one that made them start carrying the appliance in their pockets in the first place: making and receiving telephone calls. This would seem logical, except for the fact that any similarity with the "building bricks" that were popular at the beginning of the 1990s is now mere coincidence: today, the appliance many customers carry in their handbags or pockets is, let´s say... something else.
Let´s analyse the way they are used and let´s take two popular appliances, such as the BlackBerry or the iPhone. If we look at their users, what do we see? If we are talking about a BlackBerry, a person who holds the mobile between his/her index fingers in both hands while pressing the keys with both thumbs. In the case of the latter, we see a user who holds the telephone with one hand while moving the index finger of the other hand around the touchscreen. Each form of interaction has its supporters and detractors, but both cases have one thing in common: the mobile spends more time in the user´s hand than next to his/her ear. Many users spend more time reading messages, looking at websites, consulting maps and other operations that require them to look at the screen than speaking on the telephone with the speaker next to their ears and the microphone next to their mouths. This far down the line, the 1989 Fortune article that mentioned the Motorola MicroTAC and predicted that "portable phones won´t get a lot smaller than this one, because after all, they have to reach from your ear to your mouth” brings a smile to our face at the very least.
So why do many users normally use their mobile phone for something other than speaking on the phone, and why are they are designed to fit better in the hand and not next to the ear? The fact that what those users carry around with them is still called a "mobile telephone" is a kind of throwback to its original purpose, because now it is actually something else. What those users carry with them is a computer. Small, but a computer nonetheless: with its microprocessor, its ROM and RAM and its hard drive, etc., offering much the same scope as a computer. Not many people use this type of terminal to write long texts, but replying to an e-mail, searching the web, reading the newspaper, going over the restaurant menu or finding the location of their destination is pretty common. There are still those who buy the latest mobile because "it is very sophisticated" and use it for speaking on the telephone. And there are those who deny everything and say that "the telephone is for speaking on the telephone" and "I´m not going to live life stressed out looking at the screen every two or three minutes", as if carrying it with them means that they have to check their e-mail and browse the web every 10 minutes. When all is said and done, it is simply a question of adaptation.
Of course, this kind of change needs many other things to change too. It requires a change in data rates to encourage use, and a change in attitude as far as web design is concerned to enable access from this type of appliance. Wanting to log on to your company´s website from a mobile phone and finding that you can´t because it has some absurd piece of Flash is frustrating - try it. Our "mobile telephone" is no longer just a mobile telephone: speaking on the telephone is only one of its functions. The mobile telephone has grown and taken us into another age.