Black Magic

After a century of reigning as the dominant communication technology, the landline telephone has given way to cell phones and computers. As the technology evolves, so too does the means of interfacing with the devices: Chatting on a cell phone has given way to text messaging, much as instant messaging has given way to social networking. But up until recently, these functions have been divided, with calls and text messages available anywhere and email and social networking anchored to a computer. Now, with the increasing availability of smartphones, these communication methods have intersected. And it’s changed everything.

Smartphones’ effect on us can be seen everywhere, even in a group of friends, out for a night on the town. They decide to go to a restaurant for dinner, but aren’t familiar with the area. Smartphone in hand, one of them pulls up a list of nearby restaurants, checks the reviews, pulls up the address and directions, and makes a reservation. Tardy friends are quickly contacted and emailed the pertinent details.

Information is available anywhere, anytime. There’s no going back from this.

The increasing popularity of BlackBerries and other internet-capable smartphones herald the coming of the mythic all-in-one device that combines every gadget into one convenient, portable form. BlackBerries can send and receive email, play music, play video files, read Word and PDF documents, take voice memos, and provide maps with location pinpointed by built-in GPS. Oh, and they also make phone calls.

The ramifications are numerous. For road warriors, these devices can virtually eliminate the need to lug around a laptop. Even in everyday business, juggling a PDA, cell phone and laptop is now a thing of the past. Beyond the business applications, the mass-market availability of such devices will change the way we operate as a society, much as the arrival of the internet did before. There’s a reason BlackBerry users often dub their devices “CrackBerries.” An epidemic of readily accessible information and multimedia functions is set to sweep through society and leave consumer culture and social relations irrevocably altered.

Where you now see phones pressed to ears in public spaces, it is quite possible that in the near future the more common sight will be that of eyes staring intently down at mobile devices. The increasing popularity of text messaging among young people is but a harbinger of things to come. You need only think of the almost imperceptible shift in coffee house culture to see how small changes can lead to a major change in habits. Not too long ago, a coffee shop with Wi-Fi was cutting edge. Now, you can’t find a coffee shop without it. Novels and newspapers have been replaced as standard faire by faces peering into laptops and PDAs. The printed word and speaker phone are giving way to the electronic screen.

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The increasing interest in smartphones is encouraging cellular providers to bring these devices to the mass market. Research In Motion, creator of the BlackBerry, is expanding beyond its business clientele, offering the BlackBerry Pearl model for casual consumers. Palm is moving beyond PDAs and into the cell phone arena through its Treo and Centro products. And perhaps no product more exemplifies the potential appeal of an all-in-one smartphone than the Apple iPhone, a product clearly designed to appeal to a market well beyond business customers. The rapid price reductions on the iPhone certainly reinforce an urgent desire to move beyond the smartphones’ luxury status and toward everyday ubiquity.

On a nuts and bolts level, the increasing competition faced by telecommunications providers from internet services is pushing manufacturers to improve their products from the ground up, which has driven the smartphone field. Just look at the recent outbreak of Wi-Fi enabled cell phones, which combine cellular communications with PC technology to compete with desktop services like VoiP.

The integration of internet technology with cell phones will also change the way websites and businesses structure their operations. Websites tailored for mobile access tend to be more about getting information quickly and succinctly and less about flashy presentation.

Indeed, while the U.S. is only now becoming aware of the wonders of web-capable smartphones, Japan has fully embraced and integrated such technology into every day life. In Japan it’s fairly standard for websites to be designed for mobile access on a small screen; shopping can often be conducted on a cell phone. Over 50 percent of Japanese cell phone users access the internet on a regular basis. It’s not a big stretch to assume U.S. users will follow suit, especially as the English-speaking portion of the internet begins to accommodate the growing number of online-capable smartphones.

Where once there was darkness, there is illumination and information. The entire world is nestled in your hot, little hand. The smartphone has taken all the utility of the internet and shrunk it. And provided you’ve got the signal bars, your world will never be the same.

Hugo Torres is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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