Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cons and pros of the mobile revolution

I confess to a having an old fogey's ambivalence towards mobile phones. There are times when it suits me to keep in touch, but most of the time I don't want a phone taking over my life - or even interrupting it. And I figure I'm old and odd enough to get away with rarely using one.

But of all the amazing things going on in the digital revolution - the spread of computers, the internet, the declining cost of telecommunications - nothing is more remarkable than the growing ubiquity of the mobile.

According to a report by Ric Simes and John O'Mahony of Deloitte Access Economics, "it is undeniable that mobile telecommunications are altering the way the world conducts business".

The report, prepared for the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, points to the way the mobile has changed from a device for making phone calls to a platform - for emails and the internet, for transferring data, for conducting commercial transactions and for accessing the media (including this newspaper).

Now, the report says, everything digital is going mobile: software, the internet, the cloud and social media.

What are young people doing when you see them incessantly fiddling with their phones? They may be playing games, but they're more likely to be checking emails or reviewing their "twitter feed".

Do you realise that we 23 million Australians now use more than 30 million mobile services? As well as phones, this would include tablets such as iPads and the dongles that link laptop computers to the internet.

Because the sales of the mobile telecommunications industry have largely been driven by increasing subscriptions, this penetration rate of well over 100 per cent means the industry's sales are faltering. Last financial year they actually fell by 1.5 per cent. The report predicts no sales growth in real terms this year, with a modest recovery in 2013-14.

But just because sales revenue has stagnated doesn't mean the use of mobiles isn't continuing to balloon. In 2011, mobile broadband traffic averaged 8.8 petabytes a month. Cisco Systems predict this will grow by 68 per cent a year until 2016.

It's worth noting that if industry revenue is stagnant while usage continues to explode, the use of mobiles is becoming cheaper.

It may help make sense of all this to know that, according to Ericsson, voice calls now make up only a quarter of the time people spend on their mobile devices. In June 2009, less than 10 per cent of people used the internet via a handset; three years later, almost a third did.

Old fogeys like me think email and mobiles are a very mixed blessing in terms of the efficient use of our time, but the report argues valiantly that they increase the productivity of businesses.

Mobile technology can improve the productivity of employees by allowing communication on the go. Workers who are travelling can be in touch with others in the office by making calls as well as by sending and receiving emails. They can use their mobiles to access information on the internet.

Mobiles allow workers to make more productive use of down time. Time previously underutilised because of lack of access to a desktop computer is no longer so. Smartphones and tablets can be used to review documents and make changes without being in the office.

Some applications (or apps) can increase productivity. "Voice notes" allow people to store audio information, calendar apps help with time management and various apps allow you to streamline repetitive tasks. And as well as increasing the productivity of labour, mobiles can make capital equipment more productive. Desktop computers can be replaced by laptops or sometimes smartphones. Employees can be allowed to bring their own laptops or mobiles.

If mobiles and laptops allow more people to work at home, businesses can save on office space. Retailers who sell more over the internet can save on the cost of bricks and mortar, or store more of their stock in warehouses rather than city shops.

According to Deloitte Access Economics's calculations (which I wouldn't take too literally), the productivity benefits from mobile technologies added almost $500 million to gross domestic product in 2011, and this will increase to $1.3 billion a year in 2016.

But what about the social implications of all this?

To its credit, the report considers those implications rather than ignoring them, as economists and business people tend to. On the plus side, it notes that, for the individual, mobile devices offer not just communication but "rich digital experiences on the go" - photos, music, games, location-based services (such as getting directions to a place), maps, the internet and the millions of features offered by apps. And all this fits in your pocket.

But being always contactable can make you feel "always on". And Hugh Mackay, the social researcher, offers a more sceptical perspective: "You have this sense of continuous connection; it's like being in a strand of a web which is continually vibrating. Part of this feeling of being in a 'cyber crowd' is illusory, but some of it is real; it is important to note that some of this tribalism is purely cyber ...

"The richness of interpersonal encounters is largely lost if you rely on a mobile connection."

All of the audio-visual elements of a personal encounter are necessary in order to communicate fully, with feedback and subtlety.

Higher levels of interconnectivity may lead to overstimulation and a lack of silence, making it difficult for people to find time to reflect.

"The effect of this incessant stimulation on the brain is unknown, but likely to be detrimental," Mackay concludes.