Alexander Graham Bell wrote a letter to his father moments after he first tested his invention that has come to be known as the telephone. With his pen, Bell recounted the first “harmonic” telegraph in history. “I called out into the Transmitting Instrument, ‘Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you’ – and he came!”
The inventor told his father about his big dreams for the new device. “I feel that I have at last struck the solution of a great problem – and the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to house just like water or gas – and friends converse with each other without leaving home.”1
In essence, Bell was announcing that communication technology had advanced from the age of “text messages” (after all, was that not what telegraphs were?) to the age of voice calls.
How surprised might the father of the telephone be to learn that more than 130 years after his breakthrough, Americans have reverted to communicating by sending abbreviated typed messages?
In fact, a study released by Nielsen Mobile in 2008 found that cell phone users on average sent more text messages than the number of calls they made. During the second quarter of 2008, a typical U.S. mobile subscriber placed or received 204 phone calls each month. In comparison, the average mobile customer during the same period in 2006 sent or received 357 text messages per month – a 450% increase over the number of text messages circulated monthly .2
Makers of the original mobile phone handsets certainly did not anticipate that text messaging would become the primary use of the devices. Companies designed small keypads primarily for punching numbers, with the alphabet as an afterthought.3 Their prediction – unlike Bell’s, which correctly guessed that the public would use his Transmitting Instrument to “call on” their friends without leaving the house – did not account for the user-generated revolution now underway in mobile communication.
This revolution is being led by youth who come from a generation than speaks as much with thumbs as it does with tongues.4 According to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the typical teen texter exchanges more than 50 text messages per day, or 1,500 per month. That’s 18,000 text messages per year.
In 2009, a writer for the Los Angeles Times technology blog caught up with Friedhelm Hillebrand, former chairman of the nonvoice services committee within the Global System for Mobile Communications and the man responsible for deciding the space limit for text messages would be 160 characters. The writer asked the inventor of the short messaging service (SMS) for his impressions about the evolution of the technology since 1986 when it was first created.
“Hillebrand never imagined how quickly and universally the technology would be adopted. What was originally devised as a portable paging system for craftsman using their cars as a mobile office is now the preferred form of on-the-go communication for cellphone users of all ages. ‘Nobody had foreseen how fast and quickly the young people would use this,’ Hillebrand said.”5
It is significant for news media that the division of the Pew Research Center that is dedicated to studying the Internet has focused an entire report on teens and their relationship and use of their cell phones. Users, in increasing numbers, are turning to their cell phones for news and information. The mobile devices industry is rushing to facilitate this consumer behavior. News providers, then, should be rushing to fulfill their audiences’ needs and their heightened capabilities on-the-go. Some of these needs will look familiar to what newspapers have provided in the past and some will be new and specific to the dynamic mobile landscape.
Newspapers want to follow the example of Alexander Graham Bell, who envisioned the uses for the technology he invented and created a company that thrived on the huge demand for both the device and the service. However, the news industry has been more apt to have the low expectations and limited vision of the SMS providers. For example, when television emerged, news shows began as radio content with a camera that slowly evolved into visual storytelling.
The Internet, as well, was initially used for little more than pasting print content on a Web page until reporters and editors discovered the power of interactive multimedia.6 This was not the final frontier, however. As journalists finally begin to acclimate to digital storytelling on the Web, connectivity has gone mobile with hand-held devices – smartphones, eReaders, the iPad, what’s next?
Some industry analysts predict that, again, our “old” medium – the Web site – is giving way to a new one: the “app” – or application software that makes connecting to the Internet from a portable device involve less clicking. News companies that assume readers would use these mobile devices to connect through Internet browsers to their Web sites may be bypassed for stories that are pushed to readers through news apps or through social media on the mobile devices. News providers not only have to adapt to the new communication technology, they must also adapt to the unforeseen preferences and uses that users dream up for the new technology.
In January 2010 Apple, Inc., unveiled its much-hyped iPad and pitched the device as a technology that aimed to maximize the potentialities of mobile Internet connectivity. Perhaps more important than the arrival of highly anticipated gadget, which begin shipping in March, was Apple’s overt market expansion, almost a re-branding, as a mobile devices company.
“Apple is the largest mobile devices company in the world now,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in his address at the January 2010 iPad launch event in San Francisco. He pointed out that the mobile devices divisions of Sony, Samsung and Nokia fall behind Apple’s sales of mobile products, in which he includes MacBooks, iPods with the iTunes Store, and iPhones with the App Store.7
Apple has proposed that the iPad with its iBookstore will do for the publishing industry what the iPod with its iTunes store did for the music industry.
Reports, however, indicate resistance from newspaper and magazine publishers over sharing subscription revenues with Apple, which is asking for 30% percent. Even The New York Times, which introduced its app for the iPad at the launch event, is rumored to be plagued by disputes about how to price its content for the iPad.
Wrapping up the demonstration of the Times’ iPad app at the Apple event, Martin A. Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations at “the paper of record,” said, “We”re incredibly psyched to pioneer the next version of digital journalism.”8
So, your thoughts: Is Apple giving us a piece of technology that will be our major mode of communication for the next century, like Alexander Graham Bell? Or is a user-generated change (like the text messaging revolution on mobile phone) still ahead?
2 “In U.S. SMS text messaging tops mobile phone calling,” Nielsen Mobile, September 22, 2008
4 “Teens and Mobile Phones” study, April 20, 2010, Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project.
5 Mark Milian, “Why text messages are limited to 160 characters,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2009.
7 Apple Special Event January 2010, San Francisco, video-on-demand.
8 ibid. Minute 39:30.