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<nettime> Koerner: Why American teens don't want the new cell phones
geert lovink on Wed, 1 Jan 2003 14:29:25 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Koerner: Why American teens don't want the new cell phones

(USA, the PC nation versus mobilemania Europe and Asia? There could be some
truth in this techno divergence thesis--but what's wrong with such cultural
comparisons? Whereas Americans still hang onto the Internet and the heavy
weight PC machines tied to landline connections, the rest of the world seems
to be on the move, no longer tied to the desktop environment at home or in
the office. Yet, there is something missing in this kind of general
analysis. First of all, it does not take into account the broadband
stagnation in the USA itself. Internet usage itself is levelling off, with
or without high speed always on access. Secondly, there is the intimacy
aspect. Whereas cell phones still have the aura of privacy, the Internet
seems to have become a dangerous public space, full of spam, trolls, hackers
and child porn. And last but not least, there is the 'imperial' factor.
Whereas for US-American kids the Internet may be their second home,
elsewhere the Net is rightly so seen as an US imperial tool, dominated by
AOL and Microsoft. Cultural diversity hasn't really kicked in on the Net,
despite enormous growth of users in Europe, China and Latin-America.
Applications, standards and ownership are not international. The ICANN saga
only proves this. We all know: in the end, the Internet remains owned by the
US-government and this very fact is now showing its longterm cultural
repercussions. A similar analysis could of course be made for mobile phone
standards and content control (in particular for the tightly controlled
i-Mode spaces). But, let's face it... for kids the Internet is simply no
longer cool... That very fact will soon be disclosed in the USA as well, I
bet, even though many business gurus, journalists and even cultural critics
will resist this idea, having a vested interest in the PC-based Internet
dream. /geert)

There's No Place Like Home
Why American teens don't want the new cell phones
By Brendan I. Koerner
 Posted Tuesday, December 31, 2002, at 11:43 AM PT

The past year was a thoroughly rotten one for America's wireless industry,
stung by price wars and tumbling demand. Pretty much everyone who wants a
cell phone already has one, and they're none too eager to buy new $300-$400
handsets simply for the luxury of a sleeker faceplate or a tidier address
book. The only way for the mobile market to grow is to get users psyched
about data services, such as downloading games, transmitting pictures, or
the Short Messaging Service, the wireless equivalent of instant messaging.
Which is why T-Mobile hired Catherine Zeta-Jones to hawk its next-generation
phones and why Verizon's running those Euro-cool "Hello, Moto!" commercials
that trumpet cell phones as go-anywhere gaming machines.

Outside the United States, data's been a mobile hit since the late 1990s,
and nowhere more so than Japan, the coal-mine canary of wireless hip. The
mobile data pioneer, NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service, claims more than 35
million Japanese users, many of whom prefer playing Tiger Woods Golf on
their handsets to actually speaking into them. I-mode and its equivalents in
South Korea, Singapore, and Scandinavia depend heavily on teen
subscribers-in Japan, for example, the pimple-ridden set accounts for 70
percent of i-mode's revenues. But unless American youth culture undergoes a
massive upheaval over the next few months, the appetite of stateside teens
for mobile data is bound to disappoint, regardless of Zeta-Jones' pitchwoman

That's not a curmudgeonly knock on U.S. kids as techno-ignorant rubes.
Rather, American teens are spoiled when it comes to online access. In Japan,
for example, Internet access charges are still largely by the minute for PC
users. I-mode flourishes in part because those high prices prevent Japanese
teens from using their PCs to spend time online. Though the percentage of
Japanese homes with Internet access recently broke the 50 percent
mark-compared to more than 60 percent in the United States-the dearth of
flat-fee pricing plans means that Japanese families have to be economical
with their domestic hook-ups. By contrast, competitive ISP rates mean
American teens don't have to settle for a cell phone's tiny screen, crude
graphics, and sluggish download speeds.

The primacy of home Internet access in the United States has led to the
sub-par debut of Short Messaging Service on these shores. This year, 1.5
billion SMS notes will zing through American air-which sounds impressive
until you hear that Europe averages 30 billion messages a month. The killjoy
is the popularity of PC-based alternatives such as AOL Instant Messaging. If
you're an American teen who already logs onto your PC for 90 minutes a day,
how much more IM-ing can you stand?

Even where Internet access can be obtained abroad on the cheap, it's
relatively rare for non-American parents to outfit Junior's room with his
own computer. The teen bedroom cocoon is primarily a Yankee extravagance,
bolstered by our nation's suburban, supersized ways. Non-American teens are
less likely to spend their after-school hours lounging at home. They'll more
often be found in a public place-a shopping district, a park, a bench
outside McDonald's-with their heads buried in handsets as they type out SMS
notes or play FIFA World Cup.

Transportation plays a role, too. Fiddling with an i-mode is perhaps the
pre-eminent time waster for Japanese kids on trains, buses, and subways.
Americans in the same age bracket are far more likely to be behind the wheel
and to know about subways only from movies about New York City.

American moms and dads are mobile data's final, perhaps insurmountable
hurdle. Abroad, parents are more willing to stomach the data tab-after all,
it's cheaper than buying a second PC and paying for Internet access. In the
United States, the kid's cell phone is more likely to be purchased on the
pretense that it's for emergencies. And though parents will usually tolerate
the standard teen yakking that goes along with peace of mind, they blanch
when the bill reads "Download of Ms. Pac-Man: $4.99." On top of the $1,500
Dell set-up, the $24-a-month dial-up account, and the $35 wireless voice
bill, that might break the camel's back. Not to mention the American
wireless industry's hopes for a data-driven savior.

Brendan I. Koerner is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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