Cell Phones: A Love-Hate Relationship With Staying Power

Long after they became fixtures in the hands of businesspeople and teenagers alike, mobile phones still hold a unique and unenviable position in the world of technology, a device that’s loved and hated as intensely as any.

Anyone who’s ever been forced to listen to half a conversation held on a phone in public, or had a peaceful moment or a business meeting interrupted by someone else’s ring tone, or had an attempt to escape the daily rat race foiled by the ever-growing range of a cellular network knows how frustrating the devices can be.

Meanwhile, as a group, mobile phone subscribers are, by a number of measures, among the most dissatisfied of all consumers, filing scads of complaints about everything from poor customer service to unreliable connections.

Close Personal Relationship

However, at the same time, people around the world have developed such a close, personal relationship with their mobile phones, and increasingly, other devices, that the chances of ever going back to the days when people would be truly out of reach, voluntarily or involuntarily, seems impossible.

“There is no turning back from wireless technologies,” Syracuse University Professor of media and culture Robert Thompson told the E-Commerce Times. “The revolution they have wrought has gone far enough that regardless of its many disadvantages, wireless technology has already totally penetrated major blocks of the American population. The ambivalence toward these technologies reflects the fact that we are in a transition phase.”

Thompson believes that before long, that ambivalence will dissipate and be replaced by complete acceptance of mobile technology, warts and all. “Already people have learned to turn a deaf ear to three phone conversations going on in the airport waiting room, and soon, others using wireless technologies will become as unnoticed as the perpetual Muzak that serves as the soundtrack to public spaces,” he added.

Matter of Time

“The human race always seems to moan and groan with the introduction of new technology into daily life — but it seems to put up with it and finally to embrace it,” Mario Almonte, a vice president with consulting firm Herman Associates, said. “We seem to be grudgingly accepting [of cell phone use], though we continue to complain about it.”

Almonte said a similar pattern emerged with the automobile, with much of the public initially feeling cars were “noisy, smelly and useless toys for the rich. Today, our global economy depends on them. Today, cell phones are targets of the same love-hate relationship we have for lawyers: We look at lawyers as the lowest of human life forms — and cell phone use in public spaces as the lowest of human communication. Yet, when we are caught in an accident or emergency, we are grateful they are there to help us out of a jam.”

Thompson believes mobile phones can actually trick their users into thinking they’re being productive even when they’re not. And some researchers have even raised questions about the long-term health effects of always being reachable by phone.

What’s more, mobile phones are becoming increasingly personalized, with custom ring tones and face plates and other features, noted Stephanie Miller, a spokesperson for Telwares, which provides services to mobile and other carries, further engraining them into society.

Who Cares?

With all that personal and professional investment, the mobile industry might be seen as arrogantly ignoring the needs and wants of its customer base. After all, with the number of major carriers shrinking to a handful, consumers have few choices and many wireless companies have come to expect a certain number of subscribers to jump to competitors every year as a matter of course.

However, Miller said carriers are striving to do better and that customer service and customer relationship management will become more of a focus as the massive mergers of recent years are fully integrated. “The mergers are going to change things, but it will take a little time,” she said.

David Steinberg, the CEO of InPhonic, which provides online marketing and e-commerce services to wireless carriers, told the E-Commerce Times the industry was its own worst enemy for a time. Most major carriers were really several if not dozens of smaller regional carriers rolled up into one, often with disparate data networks, billing systems, Web sites and customer service procedures.

More recently, due to competitive realities in large part, carriers have come around to the need to be more responsive. InPhonic recently took over the online marketing and sales efforts of Sprint. By outsourcing, he said, Sprint can reduce the time it takes for a customer to sign up for a new calling plan and phone to 10 minutes from the previous 53 minutes.

Wireless Becoming Mature

Sprint also recently said it would undertake a massive revamp of its Sprint PCS stores, recognizing the inefficiencies in the way it has traditionally marketed its products. That move is especially encouraging, telecom analyst Jeff Kagan said, because there was nothing overtly wrong with the stores as is.

“Their stores were clean and sharp, not a problem, but they didn’t stand out,” Kagan told the E-Commerce Times. “Wireless is becoming a mature and explosive industry. The marketing is finally catching up. Sprint’s use of big name designers shows how much is at stake as the wireless industry continues to grow and to mature.”

Wireless carriers can’t require their users to have better manners, of course, and more social conflicts are likely as mobile gaming, streaming video clips of TV shows and movies, and instant messaging are added to the functionality of mobile phones — and to the background din of cellular conversations. However, if nothing else, mobile carriers are recognizing they can do more to make the process of cutting the cord a bit less painful.

This story was originally published on June 17, 2005, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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