The Age of the Smart Cell Phone
- By Linda L. Briggs
As text messaging overtakes cell networks, converged devices emerge and
e-mail moves to the keypad.
Less than 10 years after becoming a critical workday tool for most of us, college
e-mail may be on the verge of becoming yesterday’s technology. In fact,
in the business world, analysts and others predict that the use of instant messaging
will surpass e-mail sometime next year—if not sooner. The push will come
faster on college campuses, where new consumer-side technologies often find
their first footholds. Any college administrator can attest to the popularity
Text Messaging Changes Everything
But an even more compelling next communications wave is text messaging, now
hugely popular with junior high and high school students. Although instant messaging
can be conducted over cell phones, it’s more commonly accomplished between
computers. With its clever shorthand for just about everything, however, text
messaging was born to exploit cell phones. As any parent of a teen will tell
you, a cell phone’s tiny 10-key pad is no communication obstacle to an
adept text messenger. In Europe and Asia, text messaging has been rampant for
years. That’s partly because the cost structure encourages it: Texting
in Europe is usually cheaper than making a phone call. In the US, cell phone
plans that sell huge buckets of voice minutes erase that benefit.
Despite that, text messaging is starting to move onto US college campuses,
where seniors don’t tend to use it as much as first-year students do.
And as text messaging rolls across college campuses, the importance of cell
phones can hardly be overstated. Worldwide sales of mobile phones just passed
the two-billion-phone mark, headed for three billion by 2009. Actually, that
number will probably be reached earlier, since the two-billion mark was achieved
well before previous predictions.
The Devices Converge
Not surprisingly (given Steve Job’s ability to drive trends of late),
cellphone/iPod combo points to a growing reality: the convergence of small wireless
devices and big computing power. As processing chips and memory get smaller,
faster, and cheaper, more and more, cell phones turn into full-fledged computers.
Schools like Wake Forest University (NC) are finding ways
to embrace this trend. The private liberal arts institution is currently trying
out converged Pocket PC devices in a pilot project involving 120 students and
staff. Each student was given a Pocket PC this past fall, with the option of
cell phone service. Pocket PCs, made by companies such as Hewlett-Packard, and
essentially combine high-end wireless PDA functions and cell phones in a single
device. The pilot devices come with instant and text messaging, plus software.
According to Wake Forest CIO Jay Dominick, the study is beginning to suggest
that a PDA-plus-phone is a far more compelling device for students than a mere
e-mail account or standard PDA device.
Students participating in the study have
the option of turning on phone service to their Pocket PCs, or not. Those who
elect to turn on cell phone service tend to bring their devices to class; those
who don’t, often don’t. Clearly, once the device becomes a phone,
it gains a “stickiness” way beyond that of a mere PDA.
E-mail, IM, and Text Messaging
As for how students use the cell phone/PDA devices, IM-ing is still popular—it’s
one of the first applications students install. And e-mail-on-the-go is popular
as well, showing that when e-mail is portable and “instant,” it
remains important for students.
Of course, since e-mail offers an official record of exchanges (although how
long to keep the messages is a significant decision for corporations and universities
alike) it’s not going away anytime soon. Gartner
analyst Marti Harris points out that universities aren’t likely to begin
sending via IM—nor are students likely to want via IM—official messages
about registration deadlines, for example, no matter how quickly they might
reach students. There’s an informal and temporary feel to IM that d'esn’t
lend itself to that. And text messaging, with its many abbreviations, is even
less formal, and so less likely to be used for serious communications.
Yet, Wake Forest’s Dominick points out that one of the beauties of text
messaging is that it can be used to reach students quickly and relatively inexpensively
anywhere in the world. Indeed, one of the advantages of text messaging may be
its ubiquitous reach when other methods fail. Reports after Hurricane Katrina
indicated that when more traditional communications systems had failed, people
were still able to text message via cell phones.
The popularity of cell phones, and their use for text messaging, opens up brand-new
issues for universities, as with any new technology. During exams, for instance,
classrooms need to be monitored for illicit cell phone use, since both text
messaging and IM-ing are fast and silent.
The Wake Forest study already suggests that the traditional PDA will eventually
disappear, as its functions are incorporated into phones. Eventually, perhaps,
e-mail will be yesterday’s technology, too. We’ll all carry smart
cell phones brimming with features and capabilities, many of which are already
here in some form: GPS, continual presence-awareness of other users, the ability
to download video for viewing now or later on another device, and more. And
as usual, university students are pointing the way.