Cell 'phones' now do many other things

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A new study by the Pew Research Center states that 83 percent of American adults own a cell phone, and reveals some other interesting statistics about cell phone use:

Half of all adult cell phone owners (51 percent) have used their phone "to get information they needed right away." About one fourth, 27 percent, "had trouble doing something because they did not have their phone at hand" within the previous month.

Of survey participants, 40 percent used their phone in an emergency situation while 42 percent use their phone for entertainment -- playing games, listening to music, surfing the web or what have you.

But nearly a third of users -- 29 percent -- sometimes turn their phone off just to take a break from it.

Nearly three-quarters of survey participants, 73 percent, use their phones for things like text messaging and taking photos. That percentage, not surprisingly, is even higher for survey participants who use smartphones. Among all survey participants, 54 percent use their phones to send photos or videos to others.

Tom Merritt, host of the netcast "Tech News Today," said on his show Monday he uses his phone far more for other things than he does as a phone. But some people are just the opposite -- they want their phones to be phones, and don't care about apps or text messaging or surfing the web.

Microsoft's deal with Nokia to promote the Windows Phone operating system, and Google's announcement this week that it plans to purchase Motorola Mobility, mean that two of the largest phone manufacturers will be working harder than ever to convert users of feature phones (cell phones without web browsers, app-rich operating systems or productivity software) over to using smartphones. Some will be reluctant, however, especially since smartphones often require the purchase of a data plan in addition to the user's calling plan.

As tablets become more popular, I suspect cell phone service providers may have to eventually look at their data plan pricing. The early-adopters probably don't mind so much paying for data plans for both their tablet and their smartphone, but (especially if the economy continues to lag) I'm not sure everyone will want to pay for two data plans. Will some people switch back to feature phones and use only their tablets for web surfing and other smartphone-like activities? Or will they stick to the wi-fi versions of tablets, which don't require purchase of a data plan? How will cell phone service providers compete to attract and keep data plan customers?

The cell phone market is competitive, but the proposed AT&T / T-Mobile merger will take it from from four major players to three and will, I think, make it just a little less competitive.

Dell tried to split the difference with its 5-inch Streak, a slightly-oversized smartphone that called itself a tablet. I won a Dell Streak in an online giveaway last year but sold it, still factory-sealed, to help pay for holiday shopping. So I can't say whether I would have liked the Streak or not. I did like what I'd seen of it, and when I entered the contest I sincerely wanted to win the phone.

Apparently, the Streak failed to catch on here in America, and Dell has ended sales of it in the U.S. (It will still be sold in Europe.)

The technology market is changing rapidly, and I'm not sure I'd trust anyone who claims to know exactly where it's headed.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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