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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Geeky phone + Cool name = Social acceptability

I was in the US last week, and one of the things that struck me was that there is much less social stigma attached to using awkward-looking 'geeky' devices like high-end HTC handhelds and Treos. I even saw people actually talking into the large-format BlackBerries. Qwerty thumb-pads seemed much more common, and of course there were plenty of people shamelessly using hip holsters for their mobile gadgets.

(For my US readers - that sort of fashion faux pas would probably get you turned away from a trendy bar in London or Milan.... it's the European style-mistake equivalent of what I'm told are called pocket protectors)

There are a few reasons I can think of for this. And despite the swarms of tourists in my part of London I'll refrain from commenting on any sweeping or offensive stereotypes.

  • Firstly, the US embraced PDAs much more vigorously than Europe, so the idea of some sort of handheld computer is much more engrained and accepted.
  • Secondly, the preference for email and IM, and the later/slower adoption of SMS has reduced the number of people mentally-tuned into writing with multitap vs. Qwerty
  • Thirdly, the BlackBerry phenomenon has run much longer, and wider, than it has in Europe. I see many more non-corporate 'civilians' with them in the US.
  • Fourthly, the US historically had quite a high adoption of pagers relative to Europe.

But perhaps most interestingly.... geeky devices in the US have cool names. Hiptop. Dash. Curve. Q. Mogul. Blackjack. iPhone.

....compare those with MDA Vario III, XDA Executive, HTC S620, iPaq hw6910, Nokia E61i, Samsung i320, M3000 and so on.

Can you imagine a stranger ever coming up to you in a bar and saying "Oh wow, is that really a v1605?".


Tejas said...

Ironically, the US devices you call geeky are finding homes in Europe and Asia in large numbers. 2 years ago, I rarely saw Blackberries in London and they were usually in the hands of US businessmen. Today, you find a lot of locals using them. The same is happening in China, India, Australia, etc. Moreover, the epitomy of geeky devices is the famous Nokia 9xxx series - a product of Europe. The E90 shows us that form-factor is still alive.

Let's face it - geeky phones have universal appeal.

Hywel said...

Hi Dean, I think you're right that you don't see many geeky phones around the UK; except in Docklands, where it seemed the other week that everyone on the light railway was feverishly tapping away at their Blackberries. On the flipside, you don't see many Bluetooth headsets on heads in the US. Over here, it's becoming socially acceptable to have them on your head when you're not driving - which seems just wrong to me, especially after the savage satire of Nathan Barley! They all seem to be 'driver-type job' guys, like sales reps, van drivers etc. Last night in Currys for example, I was accosted by a guy who was VERY keen to tell me what DVD recorder to buy. He didn't seem embarrased to have a BT headset the size of pen-knife strapped to his head.
Maybe I'm just old-fashioned.

Dean Bubley said...

Let me clarify - there's nothing especially geeky in being an investment banker in a suit using a BlackBerry for email (unless it's stored in a belt-pouch).

Conversely, I'd argue that the Nokia 9xxx devices have historically only been bought by tech-enthusiast or a few others who *must* have the most expensive device in the shop. I don't think I've never seen a student with one.

I'm thinking here more about 'civilians' - teenagers on a train, people dressed casually sitting with friends in a bar, students in a campus cafe, people snapping photos at a tourist site at the weekend. All using big clunky devices with keyboards which look like they've been bought as a personal device. BlackBerries are a bit different even when used 'off duty', as they're usually company-supplied and that the owner didn't have a choice.

Anonymous said...

For QWERTY devices, the US market is actually much more mature than the European market as the three-way split into business (standard BB, Treo 700 series), prosumer (BlackJack) and consumer (SideKick, Helio Ocean) market clearly demonstrates. Sure, there is some blending between the markets (Helio Ocean supports YouTube, a MySpace Mobile client as well as MS Exchange), but the trend to further segment this fast growing handset market is clearly there.

kevin said...

Your comments about clunky cell phones and not checking email during off-the-clock hours might be related.

I use an at&t 8125 (skipped the 8525). This is the true definition of a clunky phone. I certainly didn't pick it for the cute name. When I upgrade to the AT&T Tilt, it won't be for the strange Tilt name. I don't even like the Tilt's tilting keyboard. Getting rid of the strange keyboard would be the first improvement I'd make to this phone/PDA.

The main reason I have a ugly large phone is for my work. Most of my projects are co-located with Asian teams and US teams. This means I don't really have off-the-clock hours.

Having a multi-function phone in my pocket allows me to keep in touch, yet still have free time. In fact, it allows me to be out of the office more, yet provide quick response to the people I work with.

When working with Asia, the 9-5 approach to work would be to read and respond to emails in the morning. Then when the people on the other side of the world get to work, they read and respond. Working a few hours in the evening with my phone allows me to have another couple of email cycles each day. Otherwise I would only get one per day.

This is a common work model on the west coast of the US. Maybe that's another reason it is more socially acceptable to have a phone hanging on your belt in the US.

Then again, it might just be that it's more socially acceptable to be a geek than fashionable in the US.

Anonymous said...


I live in the states and let me talk about the Blackberries and hip holsters. But before I do, let me preface this by saying I run an international mobile company, so what I say comes with a little bit of knowledge. (I enjoy your posts at ForOx as well.)

You see, when the Blackberries first came out it was the executives that used these and therefore it received a "status" symbol, as in, "Look everyone, my job is very important so I have to stay in touch with my office at every moment, I have a Blackberry because I am an executive and I make very important timely decisions". The hip holsters were an extension of this and a way for the blackberry users to show the world that they had one on them at all times and were therefore an executive, and therefore very important and cool and wonderful and once again, very important.

Though you in other parts of the world don't understand this, you would be amazed at how many executives "brag" about staying at work every night until midnight and having to miss meals with their families and their children's events. How many executives think it is a status symbol to be called into work on the weekends. How many executives feel important to pull out their Blackberry at a dinner party and start returning emails in front of everyone. They want to feel important and this does it for them. If it is on their hip, everyone will see that they are a very important person.

So move forward a few years after the Blackberry debuted and prices came down and now middle management can afford to have one. Well derned if they aren't going to be just like their boss and wear it on their hip, because now THEY TOO are important and need to be available at every hour. They are just copying what their bosses did. And so on, and so on and so on.

I can liken this very simply to the Cadillac. This used to be a very prestigious automobile in the states. Only the wealthy had one. Well, as time went on, everyone could start to afford one. So the lower classes started to buy them to say "look at me, I drive a Cadillac". I am important. It happened so much with the Cadillac that now most well respected folks wouldn't be caught dead in one.

I'm not saying that is the path of the Blackberry, but it certainly seems to be going this direction.

Remember, in the states, it is all about what your job is and what you drive. Now put that Blackberry or other phone on your hip and you must be someone very very important... This makes people feel good about themselves and their job. They don't even realize how geeky they actually look. They are just feeling important...

Does this help better understand the "why". Also remember, we are not privy to the cool phones over here that you all have. Go ask Ewan at SMS Text News about his experience. We are just light years behind you all in mobile technology and what is cool and isn't cool...