US Mobile Phone usage - is seeing
In the middle of February the Mobile phone industry converged on Barcelona for its major
European trade exhibition, you can see some of the keynote speeches here. As mobile phone
networks around the world have comparatively recently discovered, consumers use their mobiles
to access data far more than they use them to actually speak to people. As a consequence the
majority of phone networks have withdrawn their fixed fee all-you-can-eat data tariffs. On
February 1st Cisco, who supply a significant amount of the networking equipment used by telecom
networks, released a report available here that shows the extent of the data download problem
and why it’s causing such a headache for the networks. On page five of the report, the forecast for
Global Mobile Data Traffic in 2015 is 6.3 exabytes per month. Let’s put that in context, in 1999
Caltech Researcher Roy Williams estimated that “all the words ever spoken by human beings” could
be stored in 5 exabytes. Some people may disagree, but this would be plausible if those spoken
words were converted to text for storage. So the Cisco assumption, and they are in a better
position than most companies to guestimate, is that in the next four years, mobile network
providers will be transmitting such enormous amounts of data per month that they are going to
experience severe capacity problems unless they dramatically upgrade their networks.
Aside from the mobile networks agitating about necessary upgrading, the Barcelona buzz must
have been about the way phones are now being used. The data in this chart comes from comScore
MobiLens and was released in the second week of February this year. It’s based on a running
monthly survey, averaged over the last three months of 2010, and it indicates a fascinating trend.
It’s worth looking at the current status of mobile phone usage in the USA because its customers are
not nearly as advanced in their behaviour as those in Europe or Japan. (This is mainly due to the
slow adoption of technology able to cope with the vast geographic distances involved which meant
that, in the early days, US mobile network connections were unreliable).
The most significant thing that leaps out at me is how very important taking pictures has become.
It’s the second most popular activity after sending text messages. Although it’s obvious that a
mobile phone is primarily a communication device, it now seems to be almost as much a camera as
a phone. While many relatively low cost mobile phones have a built-in camera, all “smartphones”
include one and some of these are very smart indeed. For example: Apple’s iPhone 4 has an
impressive built-in 5 megapixel camera that uses a CMOS sensor. Five megapixels may not seem
much but the effect is magnified by the strategically placed wiring at the back of the chip which
cleverly allows maximum light to fall on the iPhone 4’s sensor providing a truly superior picture
quality. And because the camera has a fixed aperture there is no need to mess about making
adjustments, the technology automatically varies the sensitivity of the sensor to suit the available
light conditions. This results in amazingly good pictures that are incredibly easy to take. Just point
and shoot, and that’s exactly what people are doing. After seeing the data in the chart I asked a
small number of people with iPhones in the UK how often they used them for taking pictures.
Remember this was only a tiny sample, just to explore the level of the behaviour indicated on the
chart. Nevertheless I was startled to find that all the people I questioned had between 500 to 700
pictures stored on their phones.
Think about that for a moment. Only ten years ago, far fewer pictures than these were slotted into
a photograph album, or stored in a biscuit tin, reflecting a family’s entire life time. At most the total
number of hoarded photographs would be a few hundred, and these precious pictures would have
captured poses from early childhood, adolescence, holidays, marriages and on into old age. Long
before the advent of digital cameras, the joke in photo processing labs used to be that an average
roll of film would include a Christmas tree at either end of the film, as most people only took 20 or
36 pictures a year - the number of shots available on the film. Now, in a remarkably short time, the
mobile phone has become an electronic wallet. Not quite yet in payment terms, (that will come
soon enough), but there’s no doubt that its enormous picture storage capacity has started to
replace the few creased but treasured snaps of loved ones kept securely at hand in one’s wallet.
Depending on the size of the memory chip in a mobile phone, and the resolution of the pictures,
many phones already have the space to store several thousand images, and this capacity will
increase as memory chip prices fall in the future. The mobile phone has achieved the position that
the Kodak’s Box Brownie (see picture on chart) held over a century ago with its iconic slogan: “You
push the button and we do the rest.” Now when you push the button, the electronics inside the
mobile phone does everything but decide which picture to take for you. But, unlike the Box
Brownie where developing the film took one to two weeks, or even the Polaroid camera which took
a minute to process a snapshot, the pictures are instantly available. What is surprising is that we
keep so many of them, given that mobile phones provide the facility to delete the bad and only
retain the good ones. Why is the ability to preserve and share hundreds and hundreds of pictorial
reminders so evidently important to us? Could it be simply that we are taking, and keeping, so
many more pictures because we can, at no extra cost, or have we always had the desire to capture
and permanently freeze mementoes of our own reality?
It’s over 400 years since the French philosopher René Descartes’ wrote his famous supposition: “I
think, therefore I am”. Perhaps today he would be texting: “I image, therefore I am.”
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