Addicted to Phones, for Now

Opinion: Just because mobile providers have been making money doesn't mean they'll keep doing it.

Could we really lose our addiction to mobile phones? Im pretty certain were hooked. Really, truly certain. But ... the trouble with being certain is that you can remember other times when you were certain, and turned out to be wrong.

For example, Ive been pretty sure that there never will be an adequate MP3 player which is also a good phone; or (to put it the other way around) that the challenge of making a good MP3 player requires a user interface that really doesnt work when youre dialing numbers.

I was explaining this to a rapt audience (well, nobody was actually snoring) the other day. After I finished my keynote, an old friend showed up—a guy who I first met when Uncle Clive Sinclair was still making calculators and nobody had dreamed of giving him a knighthood—to report that what I had just conclusively proved impossible was finally happening.

"Up to the beginning of last year," he told me, "the kids in Hong Kong always had two. They had one music player, and one phone. This year, they all have a single device."

Which device? "The Walkman phone, from Sony Ericsson," he said.

Kids in Hong Kong arent necessarily trend leaders in the world fashion or technology, but they do have several advantages over the rest of us. The former colony has absolutely universal cellular coverage—you cant even get out of range in an underground car park, and the underground railway system is full of people who are chatting away, or texting away, nonstop.

Its part of life there, along with tiny, narrow sidewalks blocked by tiny, narrow old grannies toddling gingerly along secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to push or jostle them.

So if they start using Walkman phones, then all the objections Ive so carefully outlined are obviously wrong; my arguments are flawed, and it can happen.

I thought that people really wanted BIG music libraries. Well, it turns out that they do, until they get used to them, and then they adjust happily to taking just the bits they need.

OK, so heres the worrying thing: In Japan, teenagers dont yak continuously on the train. Get on the train, and its silent. Nobody uses their phones in public. There are signs prohibiting it, even if it wasnt just too bad-mannered for even a young tough to do.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about Sprint Nextels walkie-talkie photo sharing service.

What does this mean for the future of the phone business?

Obviously, the first resort of those who are asked is to say that it means people have to switch to mobile data; they start talking about downloads, music downloads, ring tones, all that stuff. If people talk less, they just have to spend more on Web browsing, thats all. And so they go on, as if it is just one of those natural things that people do—giving money to mobile operators is a Natural Human Need.

It aint necessarily so. Theres nothing that says phone networks have to be rich if voice calls become cheap, any more than shipping companies have to flourish when airline flights are affordable. Quite the opposite.

In Europe at the moment, you can hear the sounds of heavy breathing: sighs of relief. The cause is the long-predicted takeover bid by Telefonica for British-based O2—the small mobile phone company which really only has a presence in the United Kingdom and in Germany.

As one analyst explained (he wasnt about to let his name be used, since he does a lot of work for O2, and his remarks wouldnt be flattering to them), the takeover means that at last, sanity returns to the market. "The O2 mission was to steal customers from other operators," he said.

Now, he said, he thinks—and all the other operators think—they can concentrate on getting ready for the next epoch in mobile data, rolling out new services, investing widely in the future.

But the basic assumption that everybody is making is that voice will be a reliable revenue stream. And it just may not be the case.

First, even if people do carry on yakking, the amount they have to pay for it is dropping. Its all very well for the operators to blame falling voice charges on competitive pressures from a company that really only cared about getting taken over—the reality is that this isnt a temporary insanity.

The reality is that voice is just a strange form of data, and that it will move to the Internet, where it will be charged at a flat rate with all the other broadband data.

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We all have our own pet theories about where wireless technology is going. Some of us will be proven right, others will end up being embarrassed after our after-dinner speeches. But wireless is going to get more and more prevalent. It will be ubiquitous. And it wont be optimized for voice; it will be streaming data, including all our Web browsing, done at commodity pricing.

In a decade, a figure somewhere around $50 a month is as much as anybody is going to spend on data—mobile and fixed together. Voice will be just part of that.

And really, you could say, "It hardly matters whether voice is charged separately, or bundled; it hardly matters whether people talk more, or whether public manners mean that it becomes a taboo public act. The nightmare isnt here yet, but it cant be avoided."

The nightmare is that the big phone carriers will become neighborhood utilities, provided by the local authority along with water and electricity, employing a tenth of their current workforces, and paying their shareholders drips in todays ocean of profit.

The nightmare is only a few years off. At least, Im pretty sure it is. But I could be wrong ... it does seem that people have a way of surprising you. After all, the collapse of the passenger shipping business didnt mean that people stopped traveling.

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