The Irresistible Call of Cell Phones

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Millions of people around the world use cell phones. No wonder. Cell phones are arguably one of the most useful gadgets ever placed into our hands. You can store your address book in your cell phone; you can make  to-do lists; set reminders; play games; send text messages; take photos; save and play music; send and receive emails; pay your bills; and yes – even talk to anyone on the planet from just about anywhere.

The wish to talk to others is, of course, where it all started. The history of wireless long-distance (or at least longish distance) talking devices reaches into the hazy past, almost to the beginning of the last century, though it took inventors about fifty years to take the leap from the concept of radio telephony to the idea of cell phones. Several more decades passed before the early prototypes matured into operational practice. Japan launched the world’s first commercial cellular network in 1979. The first SMS text message was sent in Finland in 1993. And in 2001, Japan was again first with a commercial 3G (Third Generation) cellular network – that is the one that lets us use those nifty things that we cannot imagine life without, like Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) access, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), and internet communication services such as email and World Wide Web access.

As for South Africa, the country’s first in the cell phone field occurred in 1994, when one national cellular network, Vodacom, officially started commercial operation. In the first month, the new operator attracted fifty thousand subscribers.

A friend of mine was among those fifty thousand. His imagination was completely fired up by the new toy. He would not listen to us, his closest friends, who one and all advised him against wasting money on a passing fad. 

My friend still has the handset he acquired in 1994. It is the size and weight of a brick. And he still regrets having recounted to us, his closest friends, an incident that amounts to his biggest cell phone-related embarrassment.

This is what happened. Shortly after acquiring his new toy, my friend found himself in one big shopping mall. All of a sudden he felt an irresistible urge to show off the mobile communication device that was weighing down his jacket pocket. With the confidence of an old hand at new technology, he took the brick-like apparatus out of his (by then seriously sagging) pocket, placed it next to his ear and went on to play-act an important business conversation. He stopped in his tracks in the middle of the mall, he spoke clearly and loudly into the receiver, he carefully threw in choice big words like “appointment”, “negotiation”, and even (a stroke of genius) “portfolio”. All the while he beamed at the passers by, who slowed down and even stopped to witness this technological miracle. Then, at the pinnacle of his triumph, his cell phone rang. For real. The faces that only a moment ago regarded him with admiration and envy now began to eye him with derision.  To save what remained of his dignity, my friend scrambled for the car park and neglected to respond to the call, his first ever to the cell phone.

My friend’s vanity smarts even today, though he tries to hide this behind a veil of statistics. Whenever we, his closest friends, need to check his ego by bringing up the cell phone incident, he defensively reiterates with:

-    Aha! And are you the ones who told me not to waste my money on a passing fad? And do you know….

Then he goes on to inform us about:

  • the estimated number of cell phone users worldwide (4.1 billion at the end of 2008);
  • the number of mobile phone subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa (about 150 million at the end of 2008);
  • the number of cell phone subscribers in South Africa (about 45 million at the end of 2008);
  • the positive economic impact of mobile telephony on people in poor rural areas;
  • and, to top it all, about the fact that South Africa is one of the few countries where more people access the internet from their mobile telephones (9.5 million, or 19 percent of the population) than from their computers (4 million, or 8 percent of the population), the figures for the end of 2008.

Sometimes, friends can be really infuriating!

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