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SEPTEMBER 29, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 38 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Mobile Phone Madness
Does anyone remember pay phones? A whole new crop of technologies is making them even easier to forget
By YASMIN GHAHREMANI

"I don't really mind being woken in the middle of the night because it's usually my friends calling to say they're at a party and they miss me," says Reshma Gitwani. "And it's always really great when someone's thinking of you." That's why the 21-year-old computer programmer sleeps with her mobile phones. Notice the plural. She has two phones. One is for sending text messages — as many as 30 a day — to the friends she left in the Philippines nine months ago when she moved to Hong Kong. The other is for local phone calls — and for looks. Her sleek little Nokia 8850 can dial based on voice commands, assign ringing tones for different callers, and even spin around when someone calls. Of course, at $850, you'd expect it to sing and dance. But Gitwani says she just had to have it when she saw it. And what if she lost her constant companions? "I'd die. Nah, not really. But I would feel really bad."

Asians have a love-love relationship with mobile phones. On one hand, they love to chat on them — a lot. "In Europe, a person talks on the phone maybe five minutes a day, but in Asia you talk maybe four hours," says Felix Yeo, the head of Siemens' phone marketing in the region. On the other hand, Asians love the devices themselves. A phone is not just for making calls anymore. It is for making a statement about yourself. With an ever-increasing emphasis on style, and new features that allow you to surf the Web, play games, record appointments and listen to music, phones have become personalized electronic accessories.

Manufacturers break the market into different segments. At one end of the spectrum are the no-frills users. In places like China, where many people are happy just to have a phone for the first time basic handsets sell best. At the other end of the market spectrum are gadget-heads. If you live in Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore, you inevitably know one of them. They are the same folks who bought the first MP3 players and are always bragging about their phone's data synch capability, even if they never use it. Closely related to the gadget-heads are the business users. They also like lots of features, but tend to be less interested in technology just for technology's sake. Give them phones they can use in different countries, with high data transfer speeds for transmitting e-mails and faxes, and user-friendly calendars and contact books, and they'll be happy. A small but emerging segment is people who work or play a lot outdoors. Several manufacturers have come up with tough, waterproof phones aimed at these consumers. Then there are the hordes of "Looks-Firsters." They fall into two categories: young users in places like the Philippines and Thailand who like bright colors, personalized ringing tones and chat functions; and upscale sophisticates in Hong Kong and Singapore who want a handset that looks clean and elegant.

Which segment you fall into determines how often you'll buy a new phone. While Mom may cling to that antique she bought three years ago, no self-respecting high-tech hipster would be caught dead with last year's model. In wealthy markets like Hong Kong and Singapore, where 50%-60% of all residents own a phone, people get new handsets every six to nine months — particularly the young. "Parents give them to show their love," says Siemens' Yeo. "Especially if they have no time for the children." An executive who stores lots of data in his phone would tend to hang onto it longer, downloading functional upgrades from the manufacturer rather than buying a new handset.

The phone business hasn't always been this complicated, of course. When Motorola introduced the first mobile phone in 1984, people marveled at the clunky, $4,000, 2.5-pound brick. Called the DynaTAC, it came in one color: white, and if you were lucky, it would fit in your briefcase. But as silicon chip technology improved and demand for mobile phones ballooned, handsets slimmed down and became more wearable. The number of suppliers grew, from a small handful in the early '90s, to more than 50 worldwide today. Cellphone technology became a commodity, and marketers began to appeal to consumers' sense of style as a way to differentiate their products. "Mobile phones are becoming as universal as watches or wallets," says Suguna Madhavan, spokesperson for Nokia Asia-Pacific. "[A phone] is an item that you carry with you every day, so it must reflect an innate sense of style."

In Asia, the biggest trend in design has been miniaturization. Every year, the new handsets on offer get smaller and smaller. Tiny phones that would confound beefier hands in the West are just right for this region. Nokia's 8210, for example, is barely bigger than a credit card but it is the phone to own in Hong Kong and Singapore these days. Color has also come a long ways since the DynaTAC. Muted silvers or basic black still appeal to more conservative buyers, but the young or young-at-heart have flocked to crayon-box hues and interchangeable covers. "Historically, in Asia we would see a more exploratory, creative feel about color," says Tim Parsons, design chief for Motorola. "We'd also see things like pearlescents and even some interesting translucent materials that really were further ahead than America and Europe." Flashing antennas, downloadable screen characters and novelty ringing tones have helped to further personalize the handsets of increasingly avid phone fans. Designers have even gotten on board with couture carrying cases. Chanel, Versace and Louis Vitton all came up with their own versions. "Then one season Sonia Rykiel did one in bright fur that was all the rage," says Kavita Daswani, a Hong Kong fashion columnist.

As new mobile functions emerge, however, the tide is turning again. Consumers are beginning to pay as much attention to technology as they have to fashion in the past few years. Trend-setters want WAP, digital organizers and MP3 players, and they want it all to look good. "Partly, it's all about prestige — much like driving the right car and wearing the right labels," says Daswani. "But with the high-tech craze infiltrating Asia, people — no matter what their calling — are increasingly tending towards the monied, wired, Silicon Valley look."

The next five years or so will see another design revolution. With the advent of so-called third generation technology, which will allow high-speed transmission of text and image data, phones of the future will probably not look anything like today's handsets. "The days of producing a beautifully-designed piece of plastic around a brick of technology are coming to an end," says Motorola's Parsons. A phone's design will be integral to its functions in the future. For example you may have an Internet-capable wrist phone with a jewelry-like earpiece for use in the car. It will be linked to a central information system that's also available in your home and workplace. For the office, you can take off the earpiece and use a different type of mobile device that's more appropriate. "There will be a series of products that are really integrated into people's lives where information flows across environments in a very free way," says Parsons. That's the sort of vision that fires the imagination of Asian consumers. You can bet that whenever the technology becomes available, they'll be lining up for it.

Fun Phone
Nokia 3210
Changeable covers
The Look: Fone-atic
What it says about you: I buy my talk time in bulk
  Tough Phone
Nokia 6250

Dustproof and water-resistant
The Look: Tire-ware
What it says about you: I wouldn't know a quiche if it bit me

Dancing Phone
Nokia 8850
Dual-band, dances to ring tone
The Look:
Monied
What it says about you:
I never have to queue at clubs

  Gadget-head Phone
Motorola A6188
WAP, touch-screen organizer, hand-writing recognition
The Look: Geek chic
What it says about you: I know HTML, C++ and Java
Future Phone
Ericsson Concept
Devices connect via Bluetooth, wirelessly

The Look:
Jetsons etcha-sketch
What it says about you: I'm way ahead of my time
  First Phone
Motorola DynaTAC

The Look: 2.5 lb brick
What it says about you: I own an 8-track player too
MP3 Phone
Siemens SL45
Changeable memory card stores music, other data
The Look: Techno
What it says about you: My other stereo is a Bang & Olufsen
  Tiny Phone
Motorola V8088
79 g WAP phone
The Look: Couture cosmetics compact
What it says: I eat like a bird.
Jewelry Phone
Samsung Watch Phone
50g, available in Korea
The Look: James Bond
What it says about you:
I know Russian and judo

  Executive Phone
Siemens S-40: Tri-band, WAP, 57.6 k data transfer
The Look: VIP
What it says about you: I am a Cathay Pacific platinum flier
Video Phone
Nokia 3G Concept Phone
Multimedia calls and Internet access
The Look: Inter-galactic egg
What it says about you: I am a Klingon


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