Bells research doesnt just take her to foreign hotels and seminar centres. She finds herself buried in peoples homes; she arrives in Malaysia, and digs out a family who will let her spend several days following them around, watching them eat, work, play; she becomes a participant in their lives. And guess what?—the rest of the world is not, after all, exactly like America.
Bell isnt just referring to the fact that the average American home is close to 2,000 square feet, while in urban Asia, its more like 400 square feet—total. "Theres no concept of a separate room for eating, cooking, homework, relaxing, entertainment... you have one twelve foot room which has the PC, the TV, the dining table, the kitchen cooker, and the comfortable chair." So if you design something "for the living room" in an American home, theres literally nowhere to put it in Hong Kong.
And when it comes to mobile devices, religion gets involved too.
"In one country in the far East, I found that people all have religious shrines—highly decorated," recalled Bell. "You feel inhibited about photographing a religious item; it turns out they really wanted to—why dont you take a picture of my beautiful shrine? theyd ask, almost hurt that you didnt think it was worth recording."
In another part of Asia, she found young people prefer to wear their mobile phones; they hang them around their necks. And because these things are in close personal contact, they take them off to be blessed; they become religious artifacts.
Now, what phone company in America or Finland would ever have thought of the religious properties of a cellphone?
Well, clearly, Nokia.
Its latest products allow you to transfer a photo youve just taken with your camera-cellphone, to that (wireless) device adorning your throat. It could, clearly, be a picture of your home shrine. And once youd done that, youll be very reluctant to leave it behind.
The mobile devices of the future may be phones.
Then again, it may turn out that the concept of "a phone" becomes as obsolete in the year 2010 as the concept of "a VDU" today. Actually, I bet half my readers have never heard anything called a VDU—but if you think its remotely like a thin client, youre missing the point. Todays Visual Display Unit is as likely to be a cellphone as a desk-mounted CRT, and certainly wont be in green phosphor.
Cultural studies show that we arent even close to scratching the surface of "what people expect from mobile devices."
In Europe, people routinely attach hands-free headsets to their ears (wireless, or wired) and walk down the street chatting to people; in America, such behaviour would mostly be seen as weird. In Japan, it would be a gross breach of good behaviour, but a sign of vibrant impatience with old-fashioned standards. Or something.
In India, with a GDP and a population comparable (within an order of magnitude) to that of China, there are only a tenth the number of cellphones, because (says Bell) "if you pull a phone out and use it in public, in India, people will accuse you of being Punjabi about it"—an ethnic slur implying that youre trying to show off your wealth.
In China, people may only spend a few minutes a month actually talking on air, but its important to flash the phone to show that you can afford one—even if you cant afford the connect time! Average Revenue Per User is terrible, but sales are booming.
The industry has to get away from the executive who leaves a perfectly portable notebook on the desk, to go to a meeting where theyll need the data it contains. "We worked with the Microsoft group that came up with the Tablet PC concept," reveals Bell.
No surprise there, considering how important it is to the typical cube-farm worker to avoid the "barrier" of a notebook screen on a meeting room table. But clearly, theres a lot more to find out about what people will take with them.
And if you left it behind, it just failed the Kewney test: "Where is it?"
Guy Kewney is among Europes best-known IT writers, having covered the PC and communications businesses since the mid-1970s in print, on TV and radio, and latterly on the Web. He has regular columns for Personal Computer World, IT Week, and The Register, and is editor of www.NewsWireless.Net—and has more portable and mobile bits and pieces than anybody could carry, including his own portable Wi-Fi access point and three different cellular data cards. His objective is to be omnipresent on the Internet.