Smartphones alone do not a society change

09 Aug 2011

I was a little surprised by Ofcom’s revelation that smartphone users are addicted to their devices and that social conventions are changing as a result.

The UK regulator’s recent review of the country’s communications market found that 37% of adults and 60% of teenagers are hooked on their smart devices, with 51% and 65% respectively confessing to using their handset in social situations.

Those ‘social’ moments include mealtimes, in the cinema or theatre, and even in the bathroom.

I’m not convinced this is a particularly recent phenomenon, though. Rewind eight years to 2003 and I can recall an argument breaking out with my then girlfriend who couldn’t stop messaging her friends while we sat in a bar on a date. She didn’t own a smartphone – precious few of us did back then -, but was hooked regardless. I pointed out this was rude, and the argument developed from there.

So, it seems a little disingenuous to place the blame squarely at the door of the ‘smart’ segment of mobile devices rather than in the context of growing mobile penetration as a whole.

Luckily, the regulator’s report contains some stats on that too. Mobile phone penetration now stands at 90% compared to 36% in 2000; 14.3% of households have abandoned landlines over the same period; and mobile call minutes have soared 250% to 125 billion per year.

I don’t blame Ofcom for focusing on smartphones. Mapping out the social impact of the telephone and then mobile variants is a job for your local university’s psychology department rather than a regional regulator. Perhaps a better question is what companies do with the information?

Ofcom’s research found that 70% of smartphone owners take work calls while on vacation, so the first job for any enterprise is surely to dole out the latest devices to their staff in a bid to improve productivity.

But research by mobile platform firm Kony also suggests retailers should be seeking to cash-in on the smartphone phenomenon. It found that only 16% of UK outlets have a full m-commerce program in place, representing a “huge discrepancy between business practices and consumer preferences,” product marketing vice president David Eads blogs.

Eads says retailers must act fast to cash in on the opportunity highlighted by the Ofcom report. To do so, they need a “targeted, multi-platform mobile strategy that takes individual consumer preferences into account, whether that be native apps, mobile web, HTML5 or traditional SMS technology.”

All of which means that, in future, I can look forward to arguing with my date about her addiction to online shopping instead of talking to other people. Marvelous.

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