August 24th, 2007

Cell Phone Sanity Check

I field a lot of questions from folks around why there are so few 3G subscribers in the States, why the carriers “took so long” to build out 3G networks, etc. I think people forget sometimes that most people have pretty basic phones and 30-40 percent of people just talk on them.

Here are a few comments/questions from people here in SF from just the last 24 hours. They are a range of ages.

(Was out with friends celebrating a 40th birthday party so there were a lot of digital cameras in the bar). I was showing someone photos on my N95. The woman (Dominique – in her late thirties, I think) said:

“Wow, you have a really nice camera. That display is amazing. I need to get a camera like that.” Of course, my reply was, “oh, this isn’t my camera (well I use it as a camera also), this is my phone.” At that point, her jaw dropped and she was speechless. Of course, everyone wanted to check out the iPhone next – the display blew them away along with many other features, but it didn’t look and act like a camera so much so the “wow” effect of “that’s a phone?” … it was there, but in a different way.”

A friend of mine in her mid-thirties (Maricel) was visiting last weekend. She had a three-year old phone that no longer held a charge for more than five minutes so she had to keep turning if off and on to make calls. [She works in high tech, by the way] She informed me that she had just signed on for an additional two years with a carrier (the same one she’d been with for three years already). I asked, “Well, why did you sign up for a new plan without getting a new phone? This one has clearly seen better days.” She replied, “I didn’t know I could. Can I keep the same phone number if I do. I don’t want to lose my number.”

Was driving with a early forty something woman (Gwen). I was asking her how she uses her cell phone. She has two children around the ages of ten and twelve years. “I only turn it on when I need to call someone. I don’t even know the number.” I later asked her if she had broadband at home and she asked me, “What’s a broadband?”

I was helping a woman in her early sixties (Susan) learn how to use her cell phone. I began talking to her, and I realized very quickly that I wasn’t using many English words and it’s really confusing.

Here are a few of her comments:

“I can’t read what’s on the screen.”

“What are all these buttons for?”

“Where is the battery and how do I get it out to charge it?”

“What is the menu button for?”

“Do I have to pay if people call me, too?”

“What do these buttons (volume up/down) do?”

“What is walkie-talkie?”

“Do you have to pay for service on these things?”

“I can store phone numbers in here?”

I’m already getting thank you notes from her friends because she’ll no longer keep asking to borrow their cell phones.

Anyway, you get the idea. Cell phones are still pretty complicated devices to a lot of people. There is still a lot of basic customer acquisition to be done among younger children and older adults. There is a lot of money to be made with getting them signed on to basic voice plans plus a few extras – like a text messaging plan, or international calling. Not everyone is watching video on their phones yet.

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