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"Stupid people making pointless video phone calls ... "

by Chris Comley | posted on 19 February 2004


Everyone who's old enough remembers the early days of the mobile phone. They remember the big heavy "housebrick" sized hand-held units, with a battery life of about half an hour, or the "satchel" style units with ordinary handsets on cables you unclipped to talk into - longer battery life but you needed a couple of hunky bodyguard types to carry it around for you.

But that's OK. Because if you could afford one, you could afford the bodyguards. What everyone seems to forget about the early mobile phones is the cost. They were a couple of thousand pounds to buy, and cost as much as your mortgage to run.

So folk probably also forget that the user base for these devices in the early 80s was about 5% rich-kids with bottomless toy budgets who wanted to be seen with the newest trendy widget, and 95% business users, who either had a seriously good business reason to use them, or could convince their boss they had a seriously good business reason to use them.

Then over the years the usual cycle of reduced pricing attracting more users increasing the levels of sales leading to cost reduction through mass production leading to reduced pricing - and new developments in silicon and battery life etc., also leading to reduced cost - all means that these days, you consider someone who doesn't have some form of mobile communication device to be pretty unusual. The government no longer see them as a "business perk", the tax on company-supplied phones has come and gone.

And the phone manufacturers have noticed there's little point in appealing to the business user these days. From prime ministers to plumbers, anyone who's doing any sort of business at all will have one around, even if they don't have a fax machine! The manufacturers of handsets and the suppliers of airtime have over the past three or four years started to target "consumer" use of phones. Handset manufacturers keep adding what, as a business user, I can only call "gimmicks". But there's no doubt they know their stuff, a couple of million teenagers can't be wrong.

The problem is, they're doing SO well with their camera-phones, their ringtones, their logos, their colour-coded covers, their game-phones, their polyphonic ringtones, ad infinitum, that they appear to have totally forgotten the business customer is even out there.

There's a distinct risk of an imminent baby-and-bathwater event, as they now take the business user SO much for granted that in the rush to put more kiddy-appeal in the phones they're starting to skip over the business-useful features. In last month's "Which?" magazine, I glanced at the "buyers guide" grid for current popular model handsets and noticed only ONE listed phone had Bluetooth! And that was a games-playing phone where I wouldn't be at all surprised to find you can only use the Bluetooth functions to play games with other nearby phonegamers.

Oh well, as my current handset has just started to mis-behave in the car kit, it does mean I won't have to puzzle for hours over what to get next. Another one the same. (Nokia 6310i if you're interested, which works just dandy with my Tungsten T, Plantronics M1000, and the 3Com USB BlueTooth adapter on my laptop, which only yesterday paid for itself twice over.)

But by far the biggest effect of this "sell to the kids" rut the phone companies seem to be in is the targeting of the new 3G systems. These, you will of course remember, are the systems for which telcos have paid millions in licence fees, so much money the chancellor of the exchequer was hard pushed to spend it. So much money many telcos have mortgaged their entire future existence. And now they're finally in a position to start rolling out services in the UK and they're actually selling handsets, and what is the thrust of their TV advertising campaigns?

Stupid people making pointless video phone calls.

Well all I can say is, I'm glad I don't own telco shares.

Oh hang on - I do, in fact, own a few Vodafone shares. So it's with some sense of relief that I notice that finally, some months after 3G phones first hit the streets, Vodafone are finally showing they've smelled the coffee and spotted, for the first year or so of its life at least, whilst 3G costs users a lot to buy and more to operate, that the early adopters are likely to be business users. And the early adopted applications are not likely to be people making pointless video calls, or watching football matches on 2" screens, but much more likely to be people who need mobile data access. People who've remembered the GPRS access that they're currently relying on was specifically introduced as a stop-gap measure until 3G arrived bringing high-speed always-on data access to the mobile user.

And less than a week after that, it looks like T-Mobile are also firing up their new 3G network, and it looks like they also are targeting data users first and offering video-phone (etc) handsets only later down the line.

I'm going to get off this orange box now as it's windy up here, and go and see if I can find an Orange 3G data card for my laptop. Or better yet, a 3G phone with Bluetooth so I can use it with my laptop or my Tungsten.

And who knows, if it also does video-phone-calls, I may even make a video call one day. But I doubt it.


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