Ralf Wadenström (2003)

What Is a Mobile Phone?

It is self-evident that the term mobile phone stands for a kind of telephone. The same applies to the synonym cellular phone (or cell phone). The first mentioned name, that is more user-centred, tells also that we here are dealing with mobile telephones. For a phone to be cellular means to function in a cellular net-work. All cell phones are mobile phones, but all mobile phones are not necessary cellular. In North Europe the first cellular phone came with the analogical network NMT in the 80's.

To be mobile means to be portable, but in telecommunication mobility can also have some related meanings. A mobile network is not necessary mobile in it self, but is a network for mobile devices and mobile communication. Mobility is now days stressed a lot, which partly might explain why one has started to use the name mobile phone instead of cellular phone. At the same time the mobile phone has got several new functions beside the function to be a phone.

Modern mobile phones are not only portable telephones. They might also provide you with watch, calendar, phone book, SMS, MMS, internet, camera, FM radio, calculator, stopwatch, GPS positioning, thermometer and flashlight. When the mobile phone is equipped with such features, it cannot be taken for granted that a mobile phone first of all is a phone. Suddenly Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Siemens have got new competitors, although it is the manufacturers of mobile phones that are conquering new fields. It is their trump that manufacturers of cameras did not before them introduce cameras with telephone features. The Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch had plan to develop a wrist phone, but informed in April that they discontinue the project. In any case both Siemens and Samsung have already introduced their wrist phones or wristwatch phones. Many young users have for a long time been using the phone as their only watch, and the sales rate for alarm clocks has drastically decreased because the mobile phone has replaced it.

The competition between manufacturers of phones and the manufacturers of watches is however not over. Microsoft, that is pointed out as the main threat to Nokia, has plans to provide wristwatches with its software. On the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January this year Bill Gates together with manufacturers of watches such as Citizen as well as the Finnish wrist computer manufacturer Suunto showed up the new concept SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology), which will bring internet to wristwatches. Still, the palm computer seems to be a more severe competitor to the mobile phone. Producers of PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) has already provided handheld devises with internet and integrated mobile phone. On the other hand, the analyst company IDC is defining handheld devises as devises that do not include telephony. A result of this definition seems to be that the sell rates for handheld devises decreases (at least in USA) and the sells rate for communicators past the rate for handheld devises. In reality this development probably shows that handheld computers more and more are equipped with integrated mobile phone and so are classified as communicators or even (mobile) phones.

From the viewpoint of the users the main different between a PDA with integrated mobile phone and a smartphone with the platform Series 60 (for instance the first camera phone from Nokia) is that the latter can be used with one hand, while two hands are needed for a PDA. (Traditional PDAs are pen-based.) Besides the different kinds of keypad and input some difference can also be find in the form of the set and the size of the display. So fart, the mobile phone is dominating, especially in Europe. In order for Nokia to keep its position the company should market its terminals as phones!

New technology is comprehended with older technology as the model. This applies also to mobile phones. The mental models are of two kinds: functional and structural. The functional models help us to understand how phones are used, while structural models show how the devises function or are constructed. Here I would like to interpose that the term mobile phone more represent a functional understanding, while the term cellular phone stands for a understanding of how the system is constructed. For the normal user, however, it is the same how the system is built, as long as the phone is a mobile phone. Like the transition from analogical to digital system did not change the conception of mobile phones, neither a changeover to UMTS (or WCDMA) nor a move to voip (voice over internet protocol) is likely to change the users understanding of what a mobile phone is. On the other hand, the user interference and the design is forming the conception.

Although my home phone now days is a cordless telephone, that lacks traditional switchhook, do I still in my imagination put or slam the telephone handset on the hook. This is done by pressing a button with an image of a handset on the hook. In a similar way I lift the handset off the hook by pressing a button with a image of a handset off the hook. The handsets have also different colours: the handset off the hook is green, while the handset on the hook is red. For a younger generation this colours are probably more important: green means go and red stop. On older Nokia youth models (until 3330 in Europe) the buttons for off hook and on hook are replaced by a single Navi key, but they have returned in the newest models, in order to make special functions like wap more fast. The English language is even more archaic than my imaginations of handset and switchhook. In English you still hang up the handset and leave it on the hook. The hook is, however, probably standing for a dead metaphor, that does not form the understanding.

The models trough witch we conceptualise a mobile phone are often metaphoric. Like with models in general, we can divide metaphors in functional and structural. Additionally we have visual metaphors. It is probably mainly the design that decides how visual metaphors form our conceptualisation of mobile phones. The oldest mobile phones consisted of two parts: the telephone instrument and the handset. They were also called car phones, since they usually were connected to the car and used the battery of the vehicle. When the mobile phone become portable ita had already the keypad on the handset. Later on, in the 80's, the whole instrument including the battery and the (external) antenna were integrated to the handset. In Swedish mobile phones had until then been called biltelefon (i.e. car phone), but was now commonly called mobiltelefon.

The evolution has continued step by step. The main difference is that the phones has become smaller and the external antenna has disappeared. The antenna is however returning in the phones for third generation networks. Here I am however talking about the phones from the users viewpoint. From the technical perspective there is a huge difference between analogical and digital systems as well as between second and third generation systems. Since the commercial flops with wap and 3G it has become a known fact that users are not enthusiastic or even interested in the technical dimension.

Nokia together with its partners and other producers of mobile phones try to direct the development seems to go toward open industrial standards. Open standards and open architecture are supposed to secure the development of mobile systems and services, as well as to hinder producers of operative systems (that means Microsoft) to get an position of monopole. Mobile phones from different manufactures will be built with the same basic technology, but instead there will be many different kinds of phones with very different features and designs. Depending on how the users use the phone and depending on their earlier experiences with telephony and terminals they will have very different understanding of what a mobile phone is. Also the ability to recognise a mobile phone as a phone will vary. Still most people will understand a symbol that represent a phone with antenna, a display and a keypad. This is how the prototype for mobile phones looks, at least in Europe, although the antenna has been missing already for a few years. This prototype is likely to remain, like the prototype for telephones in general is a old model of corded phone.

A palm top computer is like a lap top and a desk top still a computer. As long as computers are computers and a phone is a phone wi can get on by our old notions, but when the computer and the phone are integrated in new devices, like the Nokia Communicator or other communicators, are our old conceptions treated. By the way, a communicator is generally defined as a handheld computer with integrated mobile phone. Still not all handheld computers that has integrated phone feature are called communicators. And although smartphones fulfills the criteria for communicators they are not marketed as communicators. Nokia defines its smartphones as phones with PDA in difference to PDAs with integrated phone. Contrary to most communicators, including Nokias own communicator, a smartphone, at least if it is a Nokia, can be used wit one hand.

It is not always easy to tell what is a phone and what is a computer, especially while internet is a essential feature. Simplifying we can here talk about two direction of development: in USA internet has become mobile trough handheld computers; in Europe internet has been brought to mobile phones. Where these directions of development meets the differences between (palm) computers and (mobile) phones are dissolved. In a similar way the difference between TV set and the desk top computer are dissolved, due to DVD, digital channels, and web browsers for TV. In the future remains only different kinds of terminal. Still, some terminals will probably be called mobile phones.

Although the mobile phone remains phone, we will less and less notice that what we are using is just a mobile phone. Digitalisation creates convergence between different types of media. In the future we will not talk in telephone or watch the television news. We will only talk and watch the news, without paying attention to the medium. Internet TV, interactive digital TV and set top box with processor, operative system and hard disc as well makes that the difference between surfing on the net and watching TV more is due to the users activity and the content than to the apparatus. The attention and the whole reality is moving toward the content, that loses its dependence on external frames.

Digitalisation has also on an other level reduced the gap between different types of media. Nighter mobile phones nor computers are anymore media only for communication between individuals. As a result of digitalisation, increased choices and the possibility to interactivity TV and radio are not as much as before media only for one way communication between one sender (or few senders) and mass audience. Both telephone instrument and TV set can work as everything between personal media and mass media.

If it in the future still is meaningful to talk about mobile phones, it is primally because other terminals that are used are not mobile. On the other hand, we will need remote controls for many purposes. It is likely that the users will prefer one single instrument with multiple functions. This device will probably be called mobile phone or phone. It should nit be taken for granted that manufacturers of mobile phones like Nokia and Motorola will win the game, but it seems very likely.

I will now make a distinction between understanding of the term mobile phone and understanding of actual devices called mobile phone. Is seems obvious that the term mobile phone stands for mobile phones. It is not as self-evident that the user holding a mobile phone in his hand identify the device as a mobile phone. The denotation that the user gives the term might well be more narrow than the denotation that the manufacturers suggest. In the understanding of the concept mobile phone and of the meaning of the term mobile phone prototypes are likely to play a essential role. (This argument is based on Eleanor Rosch's theory of categorization trough prototypes.) Different persons have different prototypes. For senior users an older classic model is likely to be the prototype, while the prototype for younger persons perhaps is the first own phone. The user does not categorize a phone as a mobile phone if it differ too much from prototype. Younger persons, whose prototype is a more modern model, have therefore probably a wider understanding of the term mobile phone. On the other hand, young users does not necessary use the name mobile phone, but use synonym nicknames such as celli or kännykkä in Finnish. (The proper Finnish word, matkapuhelin, litteraly means travel telephone, but today many households has no corded telephones, but only mobile phones.) Manufacturers mostly use the word phone, when they refer to mobile phones, especially if they like Nokia never have produced corded phones. Cellulars with special features are called according to their characteristics or functions: camera phone, wap phone, game phone, car phone, wrist phone.

According to more traditional philosophical theories categorization is based on definitions and classifications. Common concepts and ordinary language does not follow this pattern. If we would like, we could define mobile phone as a phone that functions in cellular networks. (Satellite phones usually works in cellular networks, where such are available.) Mobile phones have not always been cellular. We could also define mobile phone as a phone that is mobile, although phone remains to be defined. To elder persons the latter definition probably correspond to understanding of mobile phones. To younger users this definition is nor as relevant, because mobile phones has essential features, beside mobility, that corded telephones lack.

Rosch's theory about categorizing trough prototypes is consistent with Ludwig Wittgenstein's theory about family resemblance. The devices that belong to the extension of the concept mobile phone or the denotation of the term mobile phone does not need to have a special feature in common with the prototype. On the other hand, it can also be argued that mobile phones do share some essential characteristics. Beside mobility and possibility to make telephone calls many young persons would consider SMS to be a function without which a phone would not be a mobile phone. Contrary, due to special limits and kinds of subscriptions, it is for young users not always possible to make phone calls from their mobile phones. This limitation has hardly any influence on their understanding of what a mobile phone is.

Objects that are planned and created by human beings are normally defined by their purpose or function. A tool from stone age is not a cut stone, but a tool. A mobile phone is not a lump made of plastic, copper and silicon that emits radiation of certain frequencies. A problem with modern and especially future phones is that they have many different functions and many different fields of use.

Some mobile phones are beside telephones also watches, alarm clocks, calendars, phone books, calculators, flashlights, thermometers, FM radios, cameras or jewels. Still, they are first of all telephones. The mobile phone is always there where its owner is, not because the we always wants to able to listen to music or to check the time, but because we want to be available or able to make calls. The mobile phone is personal in a much higher degree than must other property. You don't buy a alarm clock with integrated phone, but you buy a mobile phone with alarm clock. Also if you aren't interested in all the new features, you buy phones with new features, because models with new features are the fashion. Mobile phones are shown up more than most things. Your mobile phone tells who you are. When you call a mobile phone you always know who answer or receive the message. How difficult was it not before the times of mobile phones, for a shy boy like me, call a girl!

The mobile phone is much more than a portable phone. Mobile phones functions more and more as a universal remote control. You can already today control many things by calling, sending text messages and using wap, infrared or bluetooth. With the mobile phone you do not only communicate human to human, but you also control the surrounding. The phone works as key, wallet, legitimation, ticket and control board.

Due to digital media physical space is losing importance. Because of internet and satellite channels immigrants can remain living in the old familiar media landscape, where they are grown up. Modern information and communication technology create conditions for multicultural (local) society. In this development mobile phones did so far not play a central role. The global coverage is here more important than mobility. Until now the functions that exist in mobile phone has also been existing in corded, non-portable devices. The must important exception is SMS, that works only in very few corded phones. Camera phones with the MSM feature, that is possibility to receive and send multimedia messages, are however bringing e new dimension to personal communication.

A probable result of he possibility not only to talk and hear but also to see the nearest ones is that people still more than today, irrespective of physical distances, will live together with their families, people with the same background or just like-minded people. The mobile phone - and Nokia - connects people, who from before were connected, but they also make people avoid people that occasionally are in the physical surrounding.