Lifestyles of the rich and digital

As the ITBusiness.ca Lear jet touched down on my private runway outside the office this morning, I gobbled down the last of my Godiva chocolates and got ready for another busy day. It was cold outside, so I pulled on my shearling John Varvatos overcoat and gathered up my office gear.

That’s

when I noticed, and the sight of it left me boiling with rage from my Alfred Sung eyeglasses to my tassled Prada loafers: someone had forgotten to polish the sapphires on my Vertu mobile phone!

Heads are going to roll.

After all, I paid more than $21,240 for this clunky creation, the first in a new line of “”luxury”” cell phones from a company Nokia officially launched on Monday. Why do I have all these assistants on the payroll when they can’t even keep my merchandise shining?

My lofty perch within the IT industry allowed me to get one of the first models of the new phones, but they’ll soon be available in the ritziest boutiques in the United States, Europe and Asia by the middle of this year. In the meantime, Vertu is going all out for its launch party. The festivities will kick off at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in Paris, where artist James Turrell will unveil an installation of light called “”First Blush,”” and acclaimed director Ron Fricke will screen a specially-produced film called “”Listen.”” Similar extravaganzas are to take place in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore and London. Don’t ask me why Toronto was left out — after all, we have a Holt Renfrew, too!

Based on Nokia technology and running on GSM, the Vertu phones can be customized for clients to include casings made of precious metals, while the sapphires are used for the display. High-quality antennae and microphones will also be available.

The Vertu’s price tag is steep and no one in the company is expecting more than a handful of users. When the margins are this high, marketshare doesn’t really matter. It’s more about mindshare — the way we will come to judge someone by the quality of their phone.

Vertu and Nokia are not alone in this endeavor. At the Communications 2001 trade show last year, George Cope, the former president of Clearnet who now runs Telus Mobility, said the industry needs “”cool phones”” in order to thrive. On a much cheaper scale, the company will try to create the same thing as Vertu: envy. If Groucho Marx famously claimed he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member, success in the IT industry often means not only creating the club, but putting yourself in charge of collecting the membership fees.

But don’t envy me just because I am now the owner of a Vertu. I know it’s difficult, but many of you technology executives will have to face the sad truth that you will probably never make as much money as a journalist like me. ACCEPT IT. Does the creation of a luxury mobile phone category perpetuate a digital divide where only the richest people have access to the best products? Does it appear unseemly, in the midst of a war on terrorism where we are all supposed to be getting back to “”values,”” to offer golden handsets? Maybe. But if you’re going to fiddle while Rome burns, wouldn’t you rather do it with a Stradivarius?

Though Apple has tried to make the computer a status symbol, it may be too late to take them into this stratosphere. You’d need exclusive features along with the fancy hardware. Vertu users will reportedly be able to upgrade their phone without changing the casing. Of course, that’s the sort of feature that all users will eventually demand. It occurs to me that commodities are commodities, and dressing them up and charging an arm and a leg isn’t going to change that. At some point I’ll have to explore this idea further before I lose the receipt for my Vertu and I’m no longer able to take it back.

But until then, my pedicurist awaits.

sschick@plesman.com

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