Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Mobile Phones: The Ultimate Platform?

Quick, who’s the biggest manufacturer of cameras in the world? Nope, it’s not Kodak. Not Canon or Sony or Pentax. Polaroid? . . . Wrong! The answer is Nokia. According to an O’Reilly Digital Media article titled “The File Manager Is Dead. Long Live the Lifeblog”:

In the last five years, says Lindholm [a higher-up at Nokia], “Nokia has become the world’s largest camera manufacturer.” Bet no one at Kodak or Canon saw that coming five years ago.

Wow. I read this and was amazed at first, but when I thought about it made perfect sense. Mobile phones have become the most ubiquitous technological device on earth. For every person walking around New York with an iPod and white headphones, I see ten people walking around talking on their cell phone. You know a device has been accepted by a culture when you stop noticing it. Cell phones are everywhere. It’s a cliche to say you can’t imagine life without it. But it’s true, it’s hard to imagine how I used to do something as simple as making plans with people before my mobile phone.

One of the things I thought about for my presentation (which has been postponed for anyone interested), is just how amazing it is that there are young people around today who have never really lived in a world without mobile devices. While most of us can remember back to what life was like when all we had to remember when we left home was our keys and wallet, young people will never know that world. I’m not making a statement about whether this is a good or a bad thing, just that it’s something that’s hard for me to comprehend.

Today mobile phones have become the ultimate platform. It’s affordable enough that most people have one and replace it every few years and it’s small enough that you truly never leave home without it. What’s more, all your billing information is already intertwined with it, making it a great way for companies to encourage you to buy things without thinking about (kind of like credit cards). A recent BusinessWeek article titled “iPod Killers” put it like this:

The ringtone boom has made the record labels enthusiastic supporters of the wireless companies. “Carriers are a new kind of retailer with massive reach,” says Eric Nicoli, chairman of EMI Group PLC, one of the four major music companies. “Plus, they have a competitive advantage over online services because their consumers can truly make impulse purchases on their phones.”

I think it’s safe to say that mobile phones are in the domain of few other pieces of technology. It’s kind of interesting to think about a few factors that make it such a unique and successful gadget.

1. It’s wireless. It took a well-established technology in the telephone and let you take it anywhere. It maintained the advantages of the telephone while at the same time adding extra desirability and function by making it mobile.

2. It’s expandable. One of the most important advances of the second half of the 20th century was expandability. Software allows you to build your own custom configuration on top of the default settings. What makes computers so powerful is the software that runs on them. Just look at today’s software to understand the power of expandability. After I got over tabs, my favorite feature of Firefox is the ability to add extensions. Essentially you’re using software on top of software to customize the look and feel of your browsing experience. Greasemonkey takes this a step further, by allowing you to customize your extension and, in turn, alter your experience past just your browser and right down to the webpage level. (Just as a note: I am aware I need to write about Greasemonkey . . . it’s coming.)

3. It’s everywhere.
It’s quite easy to understand that the more widespread a technology becomes the more significant it is in the lives of its users. When Alex Graham Bell (I call him Alex . . . we were tight) was the only guy with a phone it wasn’t all that useful. He could pick it up and pretend to talk to someone, I guess, but really it’s usefulness lies in its mass adoption. When everyone else has a cellphone it’s hard to live without one because they all expect you to be reachable.

When you throw in some of those other factors (tied directly to your finances, small enough to fit in your pocket, etc.), it’s not hard to understand why mobile phones are so important as a platform of the future. However, I write that with a caveat: the mobile phone we’ll see ten years from now will be nothing like the one we see today. The building blocks of mobile is in place, but the future of the phone is in convergence. Not just of cameras and music, but of computers and later your whole digital life. As more and more of life moves digital, we’ll need a place to keep it all and a device to access it with.

This is what Nokia wants to do with it’s Lifeblog, whether it’ll be successful is a question to be answered at another time, but it’s certainly fun to think about.

April 18, 2005