Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?
It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text. Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice.
Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with e-mail on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.
It’s hard to imagine the smartphone as we know it today has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.
That was the moment that the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.
Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place and instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify and other support services like MyCiti, Admyt and Kaching.
Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether YouTube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.
Who has time for phone calls? The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signalled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending March 31 had fallen 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group and had fallen 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.
The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue.
This means data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as was predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it had also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue. That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.
Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus.
Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.
Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life. Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.
More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time.
I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.
There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the phone. The one thing that’s obvious is that it would be silly to call it a phone for much longer.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee and on YouTube.