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The International Writers Magazine: Phone Futures

Our Upwardly Mobile Future
by Debbie Hill

The future of phones...


It was eight pm on Monday January 21st, 2010. Three billion glowing handsets faded to a dull grey and for one long night America was strangely still. There were no baseball results, no CNN news bulletins, no stock reports, no date arrangements on LoveLine, no news of local restaurant deals and no cinema and theatre listings. Millions of bewildered people sat cradling their mobiles, home alone, waiting for e mails that didn't come; the minutes stretching out painfully into hours. Old, disused phone boxes were vandalised in thousands across the country as desperate citizens tried in vain to call the network from phones that had been disconnected for years. It was the biggest network crash America had ever seen and responsible for the biggest, longest running law suit in history and the biggest baby boom of the twenty first century.

The twenty first century has been dominated by the explosive growth and advance of mobile telecommunications. Increasing from a population of approximately 480 million mobiles at the turn of the century to over five and a half billion today, the market for the mobile is still growing. This is partly because of successful, aggressive marketing to China and partly because an international law was passed that decreed that all mobile calls are paid for by the originator of the call, which meant a huge increase in the American market. No longer relying on network coverage via the old GSM system, the Universal Mobile Telephone System has meant that since 2005, wherever you are in the world - whether at the top of a cliff or in the middle of a desert - you will have crystal clear reception. The revolution in bandwidth and the open, universal standards meant that everywhere in the world became a local call area so that the cost of phoning ten miles down the road became the same as calling India or America from England. This significant change in phone charges led much of the world's population to abandon their landline phones. The landline dominated era of telecommunications faded into obscurity along with some of the cable phone companies who failed to realise that there would be little or no place for the landline when technological advances meant that portable, mobile communication became just as cheap and far more convenient.

The importance of the increase in bandwidth on the change in the way we communicate cannot be over emphasised. Because the amount of data that could be received in a second was phenomenally increased (today it is a massive 2 megabits per second) it was possible for internet information - via the standardised Wireless Application Protocol - to be sent in shortened forms to a mobile phone. WAP technology was, put simply, in the words of, 'a standardized way that a mobile talks to a server installed in the network.' Whilst WAP phones were only just beginning to take off in the year 2000, it was clear even then, that they had a huge market potential.

There were many, prompted by the high prices of the WAP phones - even up until the year 2003 - who believed that the WAP phone would never become as commercial as its non net-interactive predecessor. WAP expert site didn't expect to see commercial quantities of WAP phones until 2025 - a quarter of the way through the decade - but by the end of 2001 all new wireless phones featured some kind of information service or net browser.

The Third Generation phones which utilised the internet were revolutionary in that they were continually connected to the net - the advent of General Packet Radio System technology erasing the need to log in or set up the system and the user was billed only for the amount of time that he was sending or receiving data. Over the years, further explosion in the amount of data that could be transported two ways resulted in the fourth generation phones available today which utilise the phone as an audiovisual entertainment medium, enabling the user to play CD quality music and watch broadcast quality video clips. We take this technology for granted and think nothing of the fact that we can watch football matches and get match information in real time (as it happens) from our phones. Devices such as the walkman and the MP3 player became redundant and video stores like Blockbusters a thing of the past - people prefer instead to watch movie clips on their phones and rent the movie from the online store by getting it downloaded to a hard drive in their televisions. The annoying extra rental charge for taking tapes back late to the video shop was thankfully eliminated.

As the information provided on our phones and the number of applications that were used from a phone continued to grow, the design of the mobile changed. The phone got bigger as a result of the screen becoming larger to accommodate the icons for the applications it was used for - e mailing, banking, shopping, entertainment and communicating in real time with video phones that allow you to see the person you're talking to. The information is displayed widthways on rectangular screens that slide or flip out on most of the smart phones; unlike the traditionally square, smaller screens of first and second generation mobiles. As Bluetooth technology - the means by which wireless devices in a short distance range communicate with each other - became common around 2004 there was a fashion for watch phones with ear pieces but the craze died as soon as video phones arrived because people felt the watch screens weren't large enough to view movies.

Today we have a choice between slim, pocket sized phones, phones with larger screens that resemble palm top computers and there have been rumours that Swedish giant Ericcson is about to design a flat, clip on phone that attaches to your clothing. Whatever your preference in style of phone, it can be customised to suit your needs. Technological advance meant that the user interface of phones could be separately configured so that the particular services required by the user were programmed to the phone. This individualisation requires personally tailored customer service for the consumers because any problem with the phone is user specific. Companies like BT retained their staff and retrained them to cope with the different needs of wireless customers, even generating some extra jobs by building huge new customer care centres. This was a wise move considering that apart from some visionary upstart companies like - still retaining a healthy slice of the market by selling cheaper mobiles with student specific services - it is mainly the large companies with vision, flexibility and established infrastructures, who are surviving in this unstable world of ever changing technology.

A report in the Guardian in late 1999 detailing that 96% of devices surfing the net were PC's is revealing when it is considered that a similar study conducted in the Government commissioned Digital Watchdog in 2005 revealed that 75% of net surfing was conducted by mobile phones - that figure today is closer to 95%. The impact on personal computer manufacturers has been phenomenal. Sales of PC's declined gradually at first, with modem sales dropping to a negligible figure, but after 2005 when internet enabled phones turned into a common household phenomenon, PC sales sank so low that most major manufacturers went bankrupt. Their warehouses and factories became deserted, creating massive job losses and the tatty, empty premises with To Let signs up outside them became a poignant reminder of the once flourishing cyber cafe era. Mention Microsoft to many people today and they will probably never have heard of it. Bill Gates' stubborn refusal to accept that the PC was not going to continue as the electronic platform for the masses meant that his once monopolising company disappeared into the technological graveyard along with the PC he once believed was the future.

The lucrative partnership between the two hottest industries of the 21st century - the mobile phone and the internet - has consolidated some of the world's largest corporations (AOL and Vodafone for example) and made many people like Bob Geldof with his successful celebrity gossip application for the phone, very rich. It is the revenue from content provision that has been the real issue of the twenty first century and Silicon Alley - the multi media content generators in New York - has firmly taken over Silicon Valley's once God like status. Online market competition is fierce. and teletext are engaged in a bitter phone war to gain the custom of package holiday makers and Sega and Nintendo are battling it out for the teenage phone market with their latest online computer games.

What we use our mobile phones for has been dramatically revolutionised in the last ten years. Once used predominantly to make phone calls and send text messages via the Short Messaging Service, mobile phones are now the most popular way of surfing the web and e mailing via our phones has become an integral part of life. Kannykka, the Finnish slang for mobile phone that means extension of the hand, has been adopted into many languages reflecting that all people are able to communicate via the phone and it is true that the potential for contact with people from all kinds of communities worldwide is enormous.

The need for translation was realised as early as 2000 by the Munich based Linguatec website who would translate e mail received in a foreign language into your own language for a small fee. Over the years many other websites such as Translataword offered the same service at competitive rates until Rupert Murdoch, recognising the potential revenue from international business bought Linguaphone in 2005 and turned it into a billion dollar business providing real time translations for quick and easy communication between employees of large, international companies.

The emergence of online banking has created several significant changes in society not least that many jobs were lost as a result of the move away from people driven administration. We no longer go into the bank to withdraw cash, transfer money between accounts or even to pay bills - all transactions are done via e mail on our phones. Physical money in the form of notes and coins is a thing of the past and very probably the antiques of the future. Plastic credit cards were replaced with phone codes representing an online credit account, used at vending machines and in every kind of shop from supermarkets to hairdressers. The high street bank ceased to exist after 2003 when the last HSBC branches were closed and whilst most people have been happy to bank via their phones, several high pressure campaigns in 2009 to bring back face to face banking has resulted in the re-opening of several small personalised banks.

The effect of the constant supply of news on the newspaper industry has been profound. Newspapers, once targeted at the reader who got his main slice of news from the news broadcast at nine o' clock, now compete with real time news requested by the phone user twenty four hours of the day from the news servers. Newspaper circulation figures dropped steadily until certain publications crumbled under the loss in revenue. Those tabloids and broadsheets that survive - The Sun and The Guardian are two examples - exist only as niche publications that cost twice the price that they did at the beginning of the century when circulation was high and the price was low. Journalists have had to undergo radical transformations to cope with the need for shorter, but more frequent bytes of news, in many cases changing careers as the number of jobs decreased and the nature of the work altered.

Entertainment in the form of cinema viewing and theatre viewing has become one of the main applications of the mobile. Cinema and theatre listings can be programmed as an icon on your phone so that this information is sent daily via e mail and your social life planned around it. Computer games are played via the phone, cartoons are watched, bets are placed and restaurant reservations are made. The relatively small screens on a mobile phone have had to facilitate this information in an easily digestible short and concise manner and it is this new constricted textual format that has had a massive impact on advertising.

Victor Basta, the manager of Broadview, a global investment bank focused on the communications industry, saw back in 2000 that the tiny global positioning devices on phones created a massive potential for location specific mobile commerce. The development of the proactive 'push' technology which meant companies sending relevant local information to phone users without them requesting it - eg. restaurant menus and maps of how to get there - has proved very effective in advertising. With restricted space, companies have employed phone mail shot advertising - the replacement of the traditional junk mail that is now known as junk bytes - as a means to get people to use their services and purchase goods from them, however because of the lack of space only well known brands or local deals can be marketed this way - not helpful if you are trying to cost effectively build up a brand.

It has long been realised that campaigns which include phone targeted advertising have had far greater success than those that don't. Just look at the success of WHSmith's book advertising. Sending special offers straight to mobiles and providing easy online purchase has brought it in line with as one of the top two best selling book distributors online. Companies like Waterstones and Dillons, who didn't jump on the bandwagon both went into receivership - a clear warning to those unwilling to move with the times. Mobile-commerce, or M-Commerce as it was coined by Chris Evans, is now the nation's key buzzword and has been the single most successful new facet of advertising this century, with all the top agencies like Saatchi and Saatchi and Ogilvy and Mather adding new M-Commerce divisions to their London offices to deal with the unprecedented demand for mobile specific advertising.

Along with this location specific technology came a whole flurry of ethical debate. Instigated by the Japanese at the turn of the century with the creation of web pages for parents to track their childrens' movements, the phone has become something of a digital stalker, a surveillance mechanism for parents, suspicious spouses and the crime detection agencies, such as the FBI whose success at tracking criminals world wide was highlighted in the 2008 documentary íDigitally Collaredì. Several high profile court cases involving stalkers have highlighted the dangers of digital snooping - the worst of which involved a disturbed hacker murdering a young woman he'd become obsessed with, while she was walking her dog late at night. One particular benefit, however, is the drop in cases of nannies and babysitters abusing or abducting children in their care. There is much less concern about what is happening at home when we leave our children with these paid carers since we can simply dial into the webcams in various rooms of our homes and remotely watch over our kids.

Phone dependence has become a bitter sweet liberation. Whilst most of us are freer in our work choices - half the population now work from home, going into the office merely for important meetings - we have increasingly less privacy as the government and other international security agencies, like NSA, spy on our personal communications. 'Big Brother is watching you' is no longer a fantastical prediction of George Orwell's 1984. The reality is that your data - who your friends are, where you go, what your financial transactions are - is compiled and compared with information held on police computers. Worse still, any eavesdropper who has bought the latest, widely available decryption devices can listen in to your personal conversations. The weakened encryption code imposed by the Government is justified by the argument that spies and criminals should not be allowed to hide behind unbreakable codes, but the truth is that the right to privacy and the nation's security are being compromised.

In an age where as much money is pumped into the research of the effect of mobiles on the brain, as is pumped into research into genetically modified foods, it is clear that there is increasing concern also about the effects on our health. An international law passed in early 2004 by the International Council for Mobile Safety Standards stated that all mobile phone users should wear an ear piece to converse on their phones. This was as a direct result of the findings of Finnish cancer experts who noted a marked increase in the number of cancers in Finland between 1997 and 2003, especially amongst the ten to fifteen age bracket. It is unsurprising if we are to believe the hysteria concerning the radiation risks from mobiles, that Finland, long at the forefront of mobile technology, was seeing the manifestation of such cancers. The Nokia Research Trust is currently carrying out research into the sustained increase in cancer figures in Finland and across Europe to find out whether there could be any other factors that have contributed to this radical rise in incidence. There has also been a marked rise in general complaints from people living in close proximity to a phone mast, the common ones including dizziness, headaches, fatigue and skin irritations. A sharp rise in the incidence of myopia has been reported in Finland, Sweden and Britain and this is thought to be directly linked to focusing for long periods on mobile screen displays.

Much has also been made of a leading Finnish scientist's claim that excessive exposure to radiation from mobiles unnaturally speeds up reaction times when performing certain memory and arithmetic tests. Although this sounds like it would be beneficial, many are arguing that anything interfering with normal brain signals could have horrendous and unpredictable consequences. No-one can forget the case of Daniel Robbins, the five year old who died in 2004 from a brain tumour his parents felt was caused by living next to a phone mast. In the subsequent court case, famous because his father was at the time employed by Vodafone, his parents were advised that the evidence was inconclusive and lost their claim for compensation. His case is, however, only one of many between 2004 and 2009, being compiled by the Robbins Against Masts Group to be handed to parliament pressurising them into instigating an independent investigation.

It seems that cell phones have become this decade's social controversy, replacing road rage as the thing most likely to trigger unexpected outbursts from otherwise calm individuals. As far back as 1999, Gabriel Aiello - the New York owner of Gabriel's Bar and Restaurant - stated that mobiles are the, ʃcigarette of the 90's,' and his analysis has been proved accurate as passive radiation has replaced the much maligned passive smoking as one of society's least tolerated trends. Mr. Aiello's premises were among the first to have lounges exclusive to cell phone users but it is now common to see McDonalds' and Little Chef restaurants that are solely for phone users so that those who want to eat in peace can do so in premises where they are banned.

The Government's regulation of the air waves has become a political battle ground, with fierce, ongoing rows about how far from schools and residential housing, phone masts should be positioned. Vigilante groups are common place on estates where residents' anger about phone masts has led to contractors erecting masts in the middle of the night under police escort. More recently, the clause in phone contracts which indemnifies mobile companies against losses arising from network failure has come under intense scrutiny in the House of Commons. This is particularly relevant since the recent network induced economic slump in America - the worst economic disaster since the Wall St Crash in 1929.

Whilst the phone vanguards are preparing for the launch of the next generation of phones that clip to the inside of your clothes and operate by voice activation, there are those who are pushing the boundaries further still. Leaked reports of certain well known Finnish scientists experimenting with phone chip implantation in the throat and ears have received a mixed response - the blind community particularly vocal in their enthusiasm. These phone chips are supposedly being designed to send subvocalised thoughts to friends and colleagues anywhere in the world; a kind of practical telepathy that eliminates the need even to speak into your phone. One acknowledged benefit is that these chips are supposed to be able to deactivate a car engine if they discover levels of alcohol in the blood which exceed the safety limit, thereby reducing the number of innocent people killed by drink drivers. Trials are being conducted with the help of volunteers in secret laboratories to test the safety and effectiveness of the bodily embedded phone chips.

Whatever your opinion about the mobile, it seems very unlikely that the resistance to mobile technology will halt its momentous progress. The freedom and mobility that portable telecommunication has given people in the last twenty years can best be described as having given people the feeling that they are sharing everyday life in real time, wherever they are on the planet. Friends and family are brought closer together across the wires and spontaneous social gatherings are possible for the majority whose work schedules have become less restricting since people can be contacted anywhere, in any language, at any time. The number of people voting in Britain has never been higher and in the words of Sam North, an author and tutor, lecturing on future studies, 'the mobile phone is the greatest asset to personal democracy since the invention of the car.' This year alone, three times as many mobiles were sold than cars.

As for the future development of the phone, technology is moving at such a pace that it is anybody's guess. Graduates from Oxford's BA in Future Studies may be in a better position to comment, as is the Future Predictions Minister or anyone in possession of a crystal ball. I'll be putting my online bet, however, that Nokia's Hannu Nieminen realises his augmented reality phone ambitions so that we will stop thinking of the phone as a handset and keyboard but more of a personal bubble. Everything you see and hear will be recorded onto your personal server and displayed as text boxes that float above people's heads, reminding you where you last saw them and what you talked about. Spooky. Watch this space......



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