LONDON – If you really wanted to see the impact of smart phones, you didn’t have to come to the Symbian Expo. You could have ventured to the Proud Gallery in a different part of the British capital entirely, where some very unusual portraits are on display.
Not long ago the gallery
gave a number of celebrities, including Helena Christensen, Howie B and author Irvine Welsh, a Sony Ericsson K700i phone to document 14 days of their life in pictures. The gallery then offered budding “”mobile artists”” the chance to do the same, and have the best pictures hung up alongside the celebrities’.
If it sounds like something Andy Warhol might have conceived, try to imagine the same kind of exhibit 20 years ago, when the first personal computers hit the market. Would we have been any more impressed to see everyday documents – spreadsheets, reports, research material – run off on a dot-matrix printer? Probably not. But there was a moment when it was cool to own a personal computer, when it was something to show off. Cell phones, with their seemingly infinite branding opportunities, can still occasionally act as status symbols. And a smart phone, the kind of device people at Symbian discussed here last week, is the Rolls Royce of the lot.
The promise of mobile communications has many people in the industry trying to get past the cell phone’s growing pains, even as they worry that the greatest breakthroughs – short message service and prepaid billing – are behind them. What they need to focus on is not where mobility is going, but how it will change the customers they are dealing with today.
Consider the pocket watch, which may represent one of the early forms of mobile communications. Before that innovation, people relied on village clocks, the clocks in their home or on a ship. Pocket watches not only empowered them, they made users more cognizant of time itself. With cell phones, we are receiving messages not merely about time but about thoughts and ideas, so the real question is how it will shape language.
We know intuitively that the use of cell phones will likely force users to break down data into more bite-sized chunks. Being mobile seldom frees us to perform tasks more thoroughly but encourages us to multi-task. That’s one of the reasons, for example, many e-mail messages are much shorter than handwritten letters. Likewise, we are likely to see SMS and instant messaging find a warm reception in the short term.
Farther out, we might see developers try to create something that mimics the convenience of voice, which will remain the unbeatable king of mobile applications. That’s because voice not only gives direct cues to an individual’s personality, but because it’s easier to speak in small bits than it is to formally think through them and type them out. It’s possible a future form of messaging will dispense with words as we know them at all, creating visual metaphors like emoticons to provide a kind of shorthand for people using a phone’s keypad. Perhaps we’ll adapt something akin to the telegraph system, sending a series of easily interpretable signals. If, on the other hand, people become comfortable making video calls, text of any kind might matter far less.
These sound like difficult issues to decide, but they will be part of a slow, evolutionary process that vendors will have limited power to influence. Instead, they will spend the foreseeable future at events like Symbian Expo, trying to see beyond the cell phone’s immaturity. If I were them, I would enjoy this moment while it lasts.