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.