This was the subject of a public debate this week to launch MobileUK: Mobile phones and everyday life, a new report from the Work Foundation’s iSociety project. Denise, along with Jack the Essex plumber, Louise the single mum and Darius the freelance IT worker from west London, featured heavily in the report’s investigation into how real people use their mobile phones, and what the future holds for the gamut of new services available on 3G networks.
Fifteen years ago, mobile phones were almost unheard of outside London. Between 1998 and 2001, British ownership of mobile phones rose from 27% to 73%. Today, more than 75% of Britons have a mobile, and 90% of young people. As the iSociety report notes, this massive uptake was driven by mobiles becoming cheaper and better designed and by the introduction of pre-pay tariffs.
ISociety’s researchers shadowed their subjects over three days to see how mobile phones fit into their lives. As one of the report’s authors, James Crabtree, explains, other research into this area has often created a “false image of a mobile society” because it “concentrates only on elite groups of heavy users, particularly young urban professionals, mobile workers and teenagers.”
So what’s the reality? The people interviewed turned out to have “strong and sophisticated” views about their phones, and were highly pragmatic about controlling the costs. In particular, British people are developing “mobile manners” around the polite use of mobiles. Jack, Denise, Louise and Darius considered talking over a mobile to be pricey, sometimes pointless and less efficient than texting or even simply ringing at a pre-arranged time and hanging up. And the description of Denise and her family poring over complex tariff charts on her kitchen table will sound familiar to anyone who has debated how to pay for their mobile.
The view that family conversation is dying appears to be unfounded. The report found that mobiles were allowing families to talk more often with each other, not less, even if only at a distance.
Interestingly, having the latest model of phone is becoming less important, and even a negative. Jack the plumber said that if his clients saw him carrying a phone capable of taking and sending pictures, they’d think he was earning too much money.
Ultimately, the MobileUK report predicts that the explosive adoption of mobile phones in the late 1990s is unlikely to occur with third generation mobiles from the likes of 3. ISociety is sceptical that Vodafone’s planned 3G launch at Christmas or 3’s launch last month will be viewed as watershed events. The reason is that we already have what we wantfrom mobiles. In fact, the move to 3G is more likely to follow the pattern of how consumers have gradually started to move from dial-up internet access to high speed broadband: you still use it to email, but now it’s faster.
Simple voice calls remain the “killer app. This leads the report’s authors to wonder why people would upgrade their phones to include other services, since many consumers don’t even use the current services available on existing 2G phones.
Furthermore, “3G services will suffer if they are not priced competitively,” and 3G operators will find it tough weaning customers off the well-loved pre-pay tarrifs, whatever extra bells and whistles they offer.
So what did the researchers conclude might actually coax the likes of Denise, Jack, Louise and Darius from their existing mobiles? The researchers made five suggestions.
A 3G application has to suit a specific task, such as Jack being able to see a leak in a pipe at a customer’s house via a picture message. Services that are “sociable”, such as sharing family pictures, will work. 3G networks will have to be more competitively priced, given that some estimates say 3G phones could cost up to a thousand pounds in their first year of use. Services based around time, such as getting a video of a goal straight after a football match, will work. Lastly, any services that “tempt users to interact or transact will have to be simple and work properly.”
Speaking at the debate, John Fletcher, senior consultant at telecomms researchers Analysys, commented: “We’ve never purchased a cathode ray tube in Dixons, only a TV. It’s about solving problems not selling technology. Wap was a classic example of technology being foisted on people that left them disappointed, cynical and sceptical. This is a real problem for the 3G market.”
Dr Ben Anderson,deputy director of Chimera, said: “We are increasingly realising that the 3G killer app is not knowable. It may be a case of just allowing people to play with the technology to find out what works best.”
Research firm IDG predicts that mobile phones will outnumber landline phones by 2006, but, iSociety warns, “technology for its own sake”, not targeted at everyday tasks, will see Jack, Denise, Louise and Darius simply continuing to use the phones they already have.