BBC Future

Life:Connected

Making mobiles for the masses

About the author

Tom Chatfield is a British author. His most recent book, “Netymology”, explores language and technology. He blogs at tomchatfield.net and tweets at @TomChatfield

Stephen Elop introduces Nokia phones at MWC (Copyright: Getty Images)

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Is innovation just about building sleeker, faster, shiner gadgets? Or should we be looking elsewhere for inspiration, asks Tom Chatfield.

Fancy freshly brewed coffee in the morning, but don’t like the inconvenience of getting out of bed? Then you might want to get your hands on the wi-fi enabled coffee maker from chip-maker Qualcomm, which allows you to drip start your brew from your phone or tablet. Perhaps you have an errant cat that you need to keep tabs on? In which case the Tagg pet tracker is for you. Or how about a walking cane with built in GPS, Bluetooth and health monitoring sensors?

All this – and more – was on offer at this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Billed as “the world’s premier mobile industry event”, it packed more than 70,000 people amidst row upon row of shiny new products. Alongside the more curious “innovations” was the usual barrage of high-definition screens, feature-packed smartphones and hybrid “phablets”, with matching marketing superlatives. All in all, it was everything you might expect from a sector that has generated more than $1.6 trillion since last year’s show.

Yet, for some, there remained something underwhelming about the jamboree: a lack of headline-grabbing devices and surprises. Such is the nature of a maturing, highly competitive industry. Developments at the forefront of the today’s mobile market tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, whether they are linked to the coffee pot or not. For ordinary consumers, a point is rapidly approaching at which every device does almost everything they care about. All of which begs a question: where does real innovation lie in the vast global mobile market – and where should we look if we hope to understand its future?

For me, the answers are bound up with perhaps the most intriguing product released in Barcelona boasted neither a touchscreen, nor a camera, nor apps, nor social networking. Yours for a princely 15 Euros, the phone in question was the Nokia 105 – successor to the 100-million-unit-selling 1280 model, and arguably the world’s most affordable hunk of personal communications technology.

Nokia’s new entry-level creation comes complete with a colour screen, FM radio, dual band reception, a selection of pre-loaded games, and (somewhat bizarrely) a speaking clock. More significantly, it also boasts 12.5 hours of talk time and 35 days of standby, an integrated flashlight, and a plastic case resistant to dust and water spillage. All of which mark it out as a tool aimed at the rapidly-expanding lower end of the global market, where concerns tend not to be so much app availability as accessing electrical power.

As Nokia themselves put it, “around 2.7 billion people around the world are yet to buy their first mobile, mainly due to financial restraints”. For those who may not have access to running water or paved roads, let alone mains electricity or wired internet, a mobile phone can make a critical difference to everything from employment to education, and from banking to access to healthcare.

Little wonder that there are now more mobiles in Africa than in either Europe or America, or that they’re the continent’s fastest-growing technology. According to the World Bank, information technology led by mobile phones was directly involved in creating 5 million African jobs in 2012, and contributed 7% of the continent’s GDP – a far higher proportion than the global average, thanks to phones offering access to services like finance, newspapers and healthcare which in other countries are provided through older “legacy” communications channels.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about the Nokia 105, however, is that it won’t simply be sold in developing markets. Rather, it’s also set for release across Europe, the Middle East and Asia – where its month-long battery life should make it a popular backup phone, or even a backup of a backup, to be kept charged in a drawer or glove compartment for when all else fails.

Beyond backups, though, Nokia’s strategy suggests an increasingly two-way street running between devices aimed at different markets – and between different visions of the roles they can play in our lives. Faster, bigger and brighter will always be a pull, no matter where you live. But perhaps more decisive in creating new patterns of use will be the physical properties imbued in these gadgets – and the patterns of behaviour emerging around them.

Consider the growth of democratic participation via mobiles, and their use as forms of ID and for electronic signatures. These are practices that are likely first to become mainstream outside of Europe and America’s technology infrastructures, and then to be imported, together with new habits of action and interaction.

It is already happening with mobile money, for example. Here, the world’s leading nation is not America or China, but Kenya, where even if you don’t have a permanent postal address you can use services like m-Pesa (a contraction of the Swahili phrase for “mobile money”) to pay securely for anything in moments – so long as you’re registered with service provider Safaricom. Similar services are starting to appear in London, New York and San Francisco; but they’re playing a game of catchup.

Ironically, too, the demand for constant connectivity – and the increasing unacceptability of being uncontactable even for a few hours – suggest that features like robustness and battery life will only get more significant over time; and that deploying different species of mobile device for different occasions may become normal (a travel bag packed full of spare handsets could still cost less than a new iPhone). It’s not for nothing that one press release dubbed the Nokia 105 the “ultimate festival phone”.

By some measures, 2013 is the year in which the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the world will overtake its 7 billion population. And, whatever the future holds, innovation seems increasingly sure to arrive from the margins. Or rather, what were once the margins are destined to become the driving force behind a new conception of mobile computing: neither a luxury nor a delicate toy, but a given feature of every single adult life.

The Nokias of this world may be creating the tools, for now, but more urgent questions than we are used to asking of our mobiles are already being answered in Africa, South America, India and other emerging markets – and are beginning to redefine the nature of citizenship, business and education alike. It’s high time, in other words, to look away from “features” and towards people for whom an entire civic infrastructure might be clasped in the palm of one hand. Coffee pots and cat-tracking notwithstanding.

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