Is the Mobile ‘Net’s Tipping Point Looming on the Horizon?

The U.S., which has never been a leader in mobile technology, may finally be catching up (ever so slightly, at least) with foreign markets, thanks in large part to Google and Apple’s recent efforts to make the Internet mobile.

At the very least, American demand for many of these newer technologies, especially phones with internet capabilities, has been experiencing a significant upswing in the last year. Earlier this week, I posted a blog on the Pew Internet Project’s website that looked at the organization’s most recent data in light of some recent tech business news. For example, Pew’s most recent data suggest that many Americans cannot live without their cell phones — 51% say that it would be "very hard to give up" using them. This number has increased by 15% over the last five years. Even more significant is the percentage of Americans who report they would have a hard time giving up their Blackberries, which has jumped from just 6% of respondents in 2002 to 36% of respondents in 2007. I expect if this same question was asked at year-end 2008, we would see that number approaching, if not surpassing, the 50% mark.

At least in the case of general consumers, the iPhone has played a major role in this growth. Few other recent technologies come to mind when I consider the sheer build-up to the iPhone’s release last summer, and sales of the phone have not disappointed Apple shareholders either, even with a ridiculously high price tag. Apple has said for some time now that they plan to sell 10 million iPhones by year-end, and as of this week, they still believe they’ll hit the mark. There may even be a significant jump in sales this June when Apple releases the iPhone SDK, which will allow independent developers to create programs for the phone.

But even with all of these recent advances, the U.S. still lags far behind most of Asia in mobile phone technology. When I was in China last summer, I walked through department store-sized mobile phone stores, with thousands of models offering users the ability to do pretty much everything and anything they wanted through their cell phone. I think China’s Mobile Chief, Wang Jianzhou, put it best when he said, "We want to make the mobile phone a Swiss Army knife that can do anything for you." Americans, on the other hand, seemed to view a phone’s main purpose — until recently — merely as a way to call someone.

If some of the recent predictions are going to come true, though, I think 2008 may be the year that cell phones get a makeover in the U.S. Research & Markets has made at least two predictions this month which have caught my eye. First, they say that globally, mobile phone users will send 2 trillion (yes, with a "t") text messages in 2008, which works out to two text messages, per person, per day. Next, they say the mobile phone media and entertainment market will more than double by 2012. This money is supposed to come in the form of transforming the cellular experience from merely that of standard communication to a social platform that replaces the need for a separate computer.

And this brings us back to smartphones. The iPhone is the beginning of a new era of mobile technology, where physical location becomes irrelevant and users are constantly connected, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The implications are a little terrifying, if you ask me. John Horrigan at Pew Internet says we will see the emergence of "cloud computing," where applications and data will move from desktops to remote servers which can be accessed anytime and anywhere.

So whether or not we choose to agree with it, I think the U.S. has stepped onto the escalator taking us to Asia. We may never surpass them in terms of actual technology, but I believe that in the not-so-distant future, we will have little choice but to rely on these mobile technologies as much as many Asian countries do today, and most likely a whole lot more.

Jessica Vitak, a 2008 graduate from CCT, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Media & information Studies. She spent six years in Washington, D.C. working as an editor for PR Newswire, the global leader in news distribution and monitoring services, and later as a research intern at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Pew, she coauthored two major reports on online privacy and teens' gaming habits. Her master's thesis at Georgetown looked at relationship formation and maintenance on the social networking site Facebook, as well as the potential relationship between online activities and offline consequences. She is continuing her focus on online communication technology at MSU.