Mobile Trends: The Cell Phone Body Count

3/23/09Follow @danshapiro

You may not realize it, but your mobile phone is a cold-blooded killer.

Its assault began with little fanfare—the first victim, the phone booth, wasn’t particularly well-loved, and nobody was expecting a complete extermination. Yet here we stand in a world where Clark Kent couldn’t find a place to pull on his Supersuit if the fate of Metropolis depended on it.

The next victims were just “accidents.” Seen anyone whip out a paper address book lately? And who would have thought that a little thing like the clock on the phone’s home screen could cause so many business professionals to stop wearing watches? Just who, exactly, is next?

For those looking over their shoulder, here are the three keys that will lead us to the next genre killer:

1. Every phone’s got it. Until a feature is a part of every phone, mainstream, non-tech-savvy America won’t notice that it’s there—camera phones only penetrated everyone’s consciousness when they were everywhere.

2. The user experience really works on a phone. Mobile TV is coming, but 50″ plasmas aren’t going—the 2″ experience just doesn’t compare. SMS remains the definitive mobile success story, but don’t wait for the end of email—at least not until someone solves the keyboard problem.

3. It crosses the Good Enough Threshold. The “GET” is the point where the best phone experience exceeds the minimum consumer bar for the feature. For example, the camera GET is two megapixels, autofocus, and flash. It’s no coincidence that this is about the quality level of a cheap disposable camera.

Following these rules, let’s break down the likely victims:

Point-and-shoot cameras—The writing’s on the wall.
There’ll always be a place for high end single-lens reflex models and the like. Enthusiasts will want the very best, regardless of cost or size. Most consumers, however, ask for two things from their camera: make it small and make it cheap. The GET for camera phones is being crossed as we speak, and then comes the end of the mass market digital camera. Who’s going to pay $250 for “just a camera” when their carrier just put one in their pocket for free? Danger level: critical.

Landline phones—The signal is still keeping busy.
The latest innovation often destroys its predecessor—CDs killed records, and DVD decimated VHS. The most obvious target for the phone, then, is the landline. But while the dial tone is clearly in decline, a tradition of reliability and security in case of emergency are keeping it alive. Burglar in the backyard? Hope you can get signal for 911. Extended power outage? Your touchtone telephone will be up and running, even as cell sites go offline and your phone battery dies. Installing an alarm for your house? Neither cellular nor VoIP are approved alternatives for trusty old copper. The GET for landline replacement is high reliability, and until carriers can guarantee it, the wires are safe. Danger level: moderate.

E-mail—Just a flesh wound.
SMS has revolutionized the way we communicate, but it’s still hard to beat 144 full sized keys of QWERTY. Email’s falling into disuse with the younger set, but they still use the full-size keyboard for instant messaging, blogging, posting to their social networks, and other things that require heavy-duty text entry. If email sinks soon, it’ll be under the weight of a dozen PC alternatives, not the mobile one. The GET here is simple—45 words per minute. Danger level: low.

Laptops—You’ll still take it with you.
Travel-weary executives dreaming of the day when their backs no longer ache from lugging around heavy laptops will have to keep wishing. E-mailing and messaging capabilities are good enough on a phone for short trips, but who really wants to create Excel spreadsheets and edit lengthy documents on a screen the size of a sticky note? It may save a basket in the metal detector line at the airport, but the GET here is text that 40-year-old eyes can read. Danger level: low.

Console gaming—Target acquired.
While hardcore gamers will want an oversized graphics accelerator under the hood—never good for a power-sipping phone—the big play here is casual games. That’s Tetris, not Tekken. The GET is Solitaire, the most popular game in the world, and it plays just great on a phone. Studios like Gamehouse, Popcap, and Sandlot are making sure that the new generation of casual blockbusters like Bejeweled, Zuma, and Diner Dash will be released side-by-side on phones, PCs, and consoles. There’ll always be the power-user market, but for the mainstream, phones are poised to seize the future of gaming. Danger level: high.

MP3 players—The iPhone tolls for thee.
Storage, battery life, and a decent interface—the iPhone (and, less noticed, just about every smartphone on the market) has proven it can be done, and the clock is ticking. To date, only Apple has made it reasonably simple to fill the thing with music. Players like nuTsie and Sprint’s new music service are pushing sub-$100 phones over that hurdle. This GET is gated on the design teams: as soon as they start shipping phones that slurp up your music collection without a forest of cables and complicated software, kiss the standalone MP3 player goodbye. Danger level: high.

Television—staying on the airwaves.
Mobile TV’s coming, and it’s going to be everywhere. But the experience just isn’t the same on a phone. Bigger is way better in this case, and two hours vegging on the couch is going to trounce ten minutes of channel-flipping on the bus every time. The GET for TV is simply not in sight yet. TV will take some hits but emerge strong. Danger level: low.

A local furniture store used to advertise, “Free is a very good price.” As technologies get miniaturized, cost-reduced, and subsidized, consumers are starting to agree. Keep an eye on the cell phone—and an eye on your business. Your Good Enough Threshold may be just around the corner.

Dan Shapiro is the CEO of Robot Turtles, a crowdfunded boardgame that teaches children programming. He previously worked at Google after it acquired his company, Sparkbuy. Follow @danshapiro

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  • http://www.bonanzle.com Bill Harding

    No kidding about the death of the point and shoot! We just got a pricey new one a few months ago. I have yet to turn it on. Over the same time period, I’ve shot more than 100 pictures with my camera phone. This is especially damning when one considers that my camera phone has about 1/10th the acuity of the point and click, and of course, no flash.

    Another casualty of my phone that isn’t mentioned here: GPS systems. I just got a new one of those about a year ago, and already donated it to my girlfriend. Takes too long to setup, when I can flip open my phone and get all the location/directions I need within seconds.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Insightful piece! A few additions to the list of victims:

    Dead and buried: The PDA. When was the last time you saw someone using an organizer that wasn’t also a phone?

    Endangered: Handheld GPS units. These days, smartphones with GPS chips and large color screens can do everything dedicated GPS units can do. Garmin, Magellan, and Tom Tom will be relegated to selling dash-mounted GPS units for cars—and mobiles could take over that area too, if verbal turn-by-turn instructions come to the iPhone and other platforms, as promised.

    Endangered: Dedicated video players like the Creative Zen line. But they were never a popular category anyway.

    Soon to lose their niche: Pocket-sized HD video cameras like the Flip. As soon as CCDs and memory get a bit cheaper, manufacturers will cram the same stuff into a smartphone.

    Of course, once a “phone” starts to do all of the things we’re talking about here, it’s legitimate to ask whether it should even be called a phone. It’s more like a multiband wireless media capture, storage, and display device. We need a new name for these powerful little gadgets. I vote for “tricorder.”

  • http://www.ontela.com Dan Shapiro

    Brilliant additions! The HD video camera example particularly strikes home – I tried Samsung’s OmniaHD which records (and displays) 720p video. If I’d known that was coming, I wouldn’t have got an HD video camera.

  • http://www.sterlingpr.com Kevin Pedraja

    Name suggestion: if the iPhone was the Jesus Phone, then this new all in one device should be the GodPod.

  • http://www.mobileresearch.com David Adams

    Maybe a little premature. Instant film cameras (polaroid) were predicted to kill off the film SLR cameras as well. They didn’t, and the reason was quality. I agree that the mobile phone will probably displace the lower end cameras, but the biggest problem phone cameras have right now is poor quality. There are quite a few phones now that have integrated cameras with impressive resolutions, but I’ve yet to see one that could provide enough light from its flash to take decent photos inside after dark. I think the tipping point may have to wait a little, like everything else, for the batteries to get much better so we can get some real xenon strobes on the phones.

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe consumers don’t care. There sure are a lot of really grainy pictures on facebook taken with camera phones, but I’m guessing down the road our generation is going to feel the same regret my grandparents had about the Polaroids.

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