The mobile phone industry loves the bell curve. It shows the number of people using the latest toy or technology over time. There is a gentle slope at the start as the “early adopters” take up a new technology then rapid growth as the mainstream takes to it and finally a rapid tail away mopping up the last of the users.
Those of us in the industry pretend that we like the early adopters best because they are the pre-cursor of the mainstream. It’s not true, we like the early adopters best because we are all geeks and we want the toys too. Even toys we look at and say “that will be a failure” have an appeal. Phones like the Nokia N9 which is never going to have a successor, any apps or love from its parents have a geek cool about them.
Those with a more mature head love the middle of the bell curve, because that’s where the money is. It’s selling things people want to make to people who want to buy them.
The last third is unloved. It’s people buying the technology because they are resigned to it. If you’ve lived to your eighties without Skype, facebook, a mobile phone or an email address you don’t see why you need one now.
I, however, do love the late adopters. It’s not about what the device is, as it is for the earlies, but about what it can do for you without your having to change your life one jot. The sense of satisfaction from giving someone a mobile phone they can use, or video calling their family overseas, seeing pictures of their children on the computer or swapping news, gossip and information with WI members is immense. But it all comes with some pain of adoption and that’s not right.
What is 3G?
So where is 3G on the bell curve? Ok, let’s rewind a bit, what is 3G? It’s the technology used to connect your mobile phone to the mobile phone network. If you think of analogue, the technology used for phones launched in the mid 1980s as vinyl records, then 2G, also known as GSM which was launched a decade later was CDs. Much better sound, more robust. This makes 3G, launched officially in the UK in 2003 but which only made any impact a year or two later, analogous to DVDs. It added pictures. Ten years on we are of course about to have 4G, also known as LTE, which will like Bu-ray offer much better pictures. Some countries already have 4G but the UK has trailed badly.
So it’s fair to say that timewise 3G looks as though it fits into the last third on the bell curve. Yet when you look at all the phones for seniors they are 2G. There isn’t a single phone that Fuss Free Phones sells that’s 3G. There is a good reason for this. If you want a phone to make and receive calls on what point is there in using a more expensive technology, designed for video, just for sound. It would be like using a food processor to scramble a single egg. And it’s not just late adopters who feel this way a substantial proportion of phone networks sales are still 2G.
Even if 3G’s time has come what are we going to do with it. The things that it’s good for – email, surfing the web and watching videos – all need dexterous fingers and sharp eyesight if you are to do them on something which will fit in your pocket. That’s not why you want 3G on a big button mobile phone, however it’s not the same thing as saying you don’t want 3G on phones that are easy to use.
There are some things which work well. In particular better quality sound. It’s currently only offered by Orange in the UK but HD Voice sounds very much better. If you have poor hearing then improving the quality of the connection makes a big difference. Unfortunately you need HD voice at both ends and there are very few phones which offer it, and no big button mobiles. I’ve looked at HD Voice in more detail in the past and you can read up on it in the blog. Understanding better audio but as I said there, unfortunately there are currently no big button mobile phones which support HD Voice.
Another use for 3G is digital picture frames, things such as Mindings which turns an Android phone or tablet into a digital picture frame. If I take photographs of my children they can be automatically sent to my parents mantelpiece without them having to do anything. It’s like having Facebook without having Facebook. Of course the picture frame could have WiFi for the connection but that means having WiFi in the house and you need to remember where these users are on the bell curve, they are supremely non-techie. And WiFi always needs a little bit of keeping an eye on to make sure it is working. Using a 3G tablet provides autonomy.
I’m not a great fan of touch screens for the easy to use phone market. I like phones to have tactile feedback. A button should feel like a button as well as look like one, but there is an increasing interest in apps which are socially aware. Vodafone ran the Smart Accessibility Awards and this weekend sees the RNIB Hackathonso it’s possible that there will be apps which solve a particular user’s particular problem. I’d like to see a talking bus application. Something which used the TfL APIs and with location data (A-GPS and cell ID) looked up the next bus for the stop you were standing at. Then when you got on the bus it would know where you needed to get off and sound an alarm when you got there. An application like that needs to punt data around and 3G while not essential, is a better way to get data. It works even if you are on the phone – 2G can’t download data and make a voice call at the same time – and it’s faster. People usually only worry about the bandwidth, the speed at which a lot of data can be downloaded, but for a small amount of data the lantency matters more. Latency is the time it takes to get the first bit of data. Gamers refer to it as the Ping Time. For things like my bus app, Latency is as important as bandwidth and 3G, particularly the enhanced for of 3G we are using now called HSPA, has very low latency. The impoved bandwith of course is always good as it lets you download apps faster.
The final reason you might want 3G is a femtocell. My experience with Fuss Free Phones is that lots of customers live in rural areas, particularly on islands around the UK. Phone coverage isn’t great in the places where my customers are calling from. It also isn’t great where they are calling to as the office and stock room are in a basement. The solution to this is a Vodafone Sure Signal. This is a tiny mobile phone base station known as a Femtocell which attaches to my broadband and gives me full signal strength on a 3G phone. Only the mobile phones I’ve specified can use it and naturally they have to be on Vodafone but it makes a huge difference. Battery life is incredible. For people living in rural areas, and with broadband it’s a great solution. You might think that coverage at home isn’t an issue because you’ve a landline when you are there but once you start using a mobile you expect it to work everywhere. A mobile not working at home is the top reason why people switch networks.
Right now, there isn’t a good reason why you’d want 3G in a big button phone, but the pieces are in place for that to change.