The Age of the Smart Cell Phone

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 of IM-ing.

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), Apple’s 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 Toshiba, 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.

New Challenges

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.

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