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The future of mobile phones in a global recession?

Posted by: on Dec 12, 2008 | No Comments

I started thinking about this question recently, when it became clear that we were heading into a recession (at best). How is it going to affect workplaces, especially technology-centric work, and the consumer space, which has enabled so many of the changes we are seeing in knowledge work? And in my personal life, would I give up my mobile phone?

Along those lines, I was interested in Tomi Ahonen’s recent post on growth in the mobile phone business. Ahonen reminds us that top-of-the-line smartphones in 2008 are more powerful than laptops in recent years and are spreading rapidly due to multifunctionality. I would add that they are typically simpler to use than desktop computers as well.

In addition, mobile phones enable a more mobile lifestyle, somewhat like the car did. Here in the US, and particularly in the southwest, our cities are built around the assumption of a car. Lubbock, a charming city where I lived for a couple of years, bears those marks clearly: it’s spread out, with broad streets arranged in a grid and almost no sidewalks. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I grew up, is even more spread out and people think nothing of commuting 40 miles to work; mass transit under such circumstances is almost impracticable. And in Austin, my home, people who have a hard time affording homes in the city often choose to commute from the suburbs. The car may have once been a convenience, but now it’s a basic assumption. And when conditions change — such as the price of gasoline shooting up to $4 a gallon — people don’t have any choice but to continue paying for it. They can cut back on their extraneous car use, they can carpool to some extent, but they literally can’t give up the car. Their cities and communities are built around the assumption that they have one and use it as their primary transportation.

(Incidentally, I bought my house in part because it’s close to several city bus lines.)

We are approaching that point with mobile telephony. That’s why I think that although a global recession will move more US consumers to a prepay model, people are generally not going to give up their mobile phones. Rather the mobile phone will become a substitute for low-end computers and other consumer devices (such as mp3 players). Mobility in work and play, like the car, has become a basic assumption.

So here’s my prediction. Mobile devices (let’s not call them phones anymore) will continue to solidify market share by incorporating features of other consumer devices; the more features they can incorporate, the less consumers will need those other devices. Expect to see more bluetooth keyboards in the short to medium term, as well as moderate integration with existing input and output devices.

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