Since cellphones first began sending peals of "The Entertainer" through restaurants, they have offered one unique advantage: privacy. With no public directory of wireless numbers, cellphone users could be sure that every ring was personal - no crank callers, or telemarketers.
By early next year, however, that could change. The cellphone industry is working on a directory that would, for the first time, make public many of America's 163 million wireless numbers.
Critics say the move could undermine the very allure of cellphones - the ability to avoid unwanted callers. Yet, to others, it points to something deeper: how cellphones are changing the way the world communicates.
They are no longer simply glorified cordless phones. Wireless phones are Internet ports and photo galleries that distill rock videos and political revolution into a pocket-size neon box with an assortment of rings. For many people, they are the primary connection to the broader world.
Now, that concept of a cellphone is clashing with that of those who would just as soon be left alone. As a result, the wireless directory is becoming a touchstone in the battle to ensure that anonymity does not mean isolation in an increasingly interconnected world.
"Technology is a double-edged sword for many consumers," says Alan Davidson of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "There's the promise of all these wonderful things, but on the other hand, you have to give up a measure of privacy - and this is a perfect example of that."
Chris Patti, for one, would be happy to give up that privacy for a directory. "It's impossible to find anybody's cellphone number," he says as he sits outside an Oakland ice-cream parlor on a blustery day. Then again, he doesn't see his cellphone as his private line to the world. It's his funnel for all that the world wants to tell him.
He says he receives more than 100 e-mails a day on his cellphone. "Most of them are junk," he laughs, but that's fine, he wants to be connected. E-mails are just the beginning of cellphone wonder.
One San Diego garage band recorded and distributed its video entirely with cellphones. Some online Weblogs have evolved into Moblogs - mobile phone diaries. And the new trend in politics is to get young voters' cellphone numbers in the hopes that calls and text messages will improve voter turnout.
Elsewhere in the world, text messages have spawned modern-day Paul Reveres, who ride across the wireless world in pursuit of democracy. In 2001, Philippine youths used text messages to organize the protest that toppled a corrupt president. "It gives the ability to self-organize collective action," says Howard Rheingold, whose book, "Smart Mobs," examines the phenomenon.
Futurists foresee wireless phones that will download music and movies, give directions based on where you are standing - and suggest a good Thai place along the way. Even now, there are hints of what might come: dating databases that ring cellphones when a potential match is nearby, supermarkets that allow customers to download coupons as they shop.
Says Mr. Rheingold: "This directory is just a step toward some things that are not possible now but may be in the future."
To be sure, a directory would be a financial boon. Within five years, directory-generated calls could bring in an additional $3 billion to the wireless industry, according to a study by the Zelos Group in San Francisco.
The concern is that a public directory would open cellphones to the avalanche of telemarketing and spam. Moreover, users would have to pay for every intrusion with their own minutes.
The US has already put safeguards in place: Marketing to cellphones is illegal. Yet not everyone plays by the rules, critics say, and the only way to ensure privacy is to require that the directory be voluntary.
The organization compiling the list, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, agrees. "Consumers will have to actively choose to be listed," says spokesman Travis Larson, who adds that the list will be only available by dialing 411.
With no laws governing a directory, though, the controversy is quickly narrowing to a single question: Will the industry do what it says? Most cellphone customers, for instance, have already signed contracts that let their carriers put their numbers in a directory - it's in the fine print.
Rep. Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania has introduced legislation that would require carriers to get customers' approval for directory listings and prevent carriers from charging customers who want to be excluded. Verizon has refused to participate, citing customers' privacy concerns.
Yet the cultural forces pushing for more cellphone openness could, over time, prove persuasive. In a little more than one month, some 2,300 residents have signed up for Dodgeball, a New York service that asks members to check in via cellphone whenever they arrive at one of 4,000 registered bars or restaurants. When they do, Dodgeball sends out the location to all their friends within 10 blocks.
"The single most important leap was when cellphones began to be a vehicle for Internet access," says Paul Levinson, author of "Cellphone." "It is becoming the single all-purpose communication device."