Cellphones: once a status symbol, now a necessity

Cellphone use in US triples in 10 years, to 172 million, changing lifestyles from the campus to the highway.

Judy Harger-Gedeon just realized she has something in common with the short-tailed albatross, the bony-tailed chub, and the tidewater goby.

Like the others on America's endangered species list, Ms. Harger-Gideon - as someone who does not yet own her own cellphone - is a member of a fast-vanishing breed (call it, "personus noncellphonius").

"For all these years, I have been the ultimate Luddite, but even I won't be able to hold out much longer," says Ms. Harger-Gedeon, a 50-something executive secretary. "Now, it's becoming much more irresponsible and burdensome - maybe even impossible - to live in America and not have one."

The notion of the cellphone as necessity may not be universally agreed, but if you're in doubt about whether the device is transforming American life just try wresting one away from a teenager you know.

With a popularity and versatility that spans continents and generations, the cellphone may be on its way to becoming mankind's primary communication interface and a lifestyle tool that exceeds the personal computer in ubiquity, say watchers of technology culture.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But the devices, used by 1 billion people worldwide, already go well beyond voice traffic to serve up everything from stock tips to movie times and photos of friends. The cellphone's rise is in some ways redefining - and raising concerns about - solitude, social etiquette, the boundaries of home and work, and even personal identity.

"The cellphone has moved from a helpful service appliance to a necessity," says Tom McPhail, a professor of media studies and communication at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "Older Americans are realizing they are needlessly cut off without one, and for youth it has become a part of their persona and identity without which they feel naked, shunned, or isolated."

If the long-term destiny of pocket-size communication remains still a matter of forecasts, its present is clearly big business at the very least.

Rumors of a $34 billion merger between Sprint Corp. and Nextel sent shares of both companies higher late last week. The US Census Bureau recently reported that wireless revenues passed the $100 billion mark in 2003, rising 14 percent from the previous year. Some 172 million Americans own cellphones, triple the number a decade ago. But usage still lags behind much of Europe and parts of Asia.

Increasingly, reluctant new purchasers like Ms. Harger-Gedeon are finding they are laughably behind the curve if they tell the store clerk they simply want a device to talk into. Consumers are expecting the ability to send text messages, photographs, scroll news headlines, check the weather, and play videogames - wherever they happen to be.

"Revenues from the voice side of wireless have plateaued enough that companies have been racing to continue their income with data services," says Scott Silk, CEO of Action Engine, a firm that is developing ways for cellphone users to be one touch-tone away from the Internet. "The real future of the cellphone is going to be any and everything but voice," says Mr. Silk.

While older Americans like Harger-Gedeon are catching on to the fact that not having a cellphone could actually be considered socially obtuse ("A call ahead while stuck in traffic is no longer a courtesy but a given," she says), teenagers say leaving the house with the cellphone is as basic as having a wallet or purse and house keys.

"Everybody I know uses it for just everything, everything," says Melinda Burroughs, a 17-year-old in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Besides keeping her a ring away from her parents, Melinda says her phone serves as alarm clock and watch. It lists movies, text messages from friends, and latest sports scores. When cellphone use reaches a critical mass among teens, say experts, everyone suddenly has to get one.

While some industry watchers claim one of the fastest-growing groups of users are those between ages 13-24, exact statistics are scarce because it is still largely parents who buy them and pay for their use. But whatever the number, international cellphone use is still outpacing that of the US.

"American teens are just catching up to those in Asia and Europe in using the cellphone for everything from talking and text messages to games," says Namoi Baron, Professor of Linguistics at American University. Part of ownership for the wave of younger buyers is the perceived need to remain a player in the peer-to-peer communication game. The other is to stay au courant with fads and styles - amassing more than one phone body, for instance, for use as fashion accessory or in collecting musical "ring tones." Those are distinctive minisongs that users stockpile to allow them to identify individual callers, a demand that has generated a billion-dollar industry (Pop singer P Diddy won a music award last week for best ring tone).

Nor are the cellphone's new buyers willing to fall behind in the burgeoning world of global, mobile entertainment - using the cellphone as a nexus for all kinds of mobile products to consumers from magazines to sports to online books. This field is expected to generate more than $27 billion in revenue with 2.5 billion users by 2008-2009 according to Airborne Entertainment, which distributes such brands as A&E, Berlitz, HBO, The History Channel, and NHL to the mobile marketplace.

One of the growing uses for mobile phones among youth - and generating innovation for the rest of us - is video games, now at about $100 million in annual sales and expected to double by next year.

"Gaming is one of the areas that is driving some of the craziest innovations in cellphone use," says Mitch Lasky, CEO of JAMDAT.mobile, a leading global wireless publisher. High resolution cameras, liquid crystal screens, faster processors, and new forms of graphics have all been developed by such firms as Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola, spilling over into advances for general consumers. The size, shape, and definition of cellphones will continue to morph as they become more central in consumer's lives, say experts.

If the meteoric rise in cellphone possibilities are generating great expectations by new consumers and companies, they are also generating warning signals in some corners. Talking on the phone while driving has long been a safety concern. And shrilling rings that shatter the quiet of restaurants or the enjoyment of a concert audience has been the standard annoyance since cellphones first proliferated in pockets and handbags. But one of the newest debates swirls around balancing connectivity with the need for solitude.

"What does 'alone' mean in a wireless world?" asks Dr. Robbie Blinkoff, a consumer anthropologist who has published several ethnographic studies on cellphone users, known as "The Mobiles."

Voicing an oft-heard observation, CEO Silk says he recently crossed the Ohio State campus and couldn't find a teenager without a mobile or music headphone in their ear. As in decades past, the students did not congregate and share stories, he says, but rather remained connected to others solely by cellphone. Other sociologists worry that teens use all their free time messaging or talking to friends so that they no longer spend enough time in mental solitude crucial to understanding a separate self, problem solving, and allowing space for creativity and intuition.

"If you talk to students you often find they have trouble being alone," says Baron. "Some argue that cellphones make it possible to have larger social safety net and that that contact is good. I argue that part of what makes a human being is the ability to be alone with no one to help [think] through a number of difficult circumstances ... to figure out who [we] are, where [we] want to go, who [we] want to be. At some point [students] need to stand on their own two feet."

But the need to always be connected to others may naturally settle with time. "Those who used to complain that they couldn't get away from their boss at work or find any peace, are doing much better in taking control by turning off their cellphones whenever they want," says Dr. Blinkoff.

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