Lets attempt to describe key patterns of contemporary mobile communication. A major thematic issue is over the degree to which mobile is homogenizing or diversifying patterns of communication in society. On the one hand, many treatments of the mobile revolution suggest that everyone is moving on a similar path, with increasing proportions of the world being connected to a mobile future. On the other hand, the findings of a variety of studies highlight the differences that are continuing to emerge across individuals, nations, and regions in their access and use of mobile in widely varying ecologies of communication technologies. Often, this differentiation is tied to inequalities in access to ICTs with more well-to-do individuals, nations, and regions having access to a richer array of technologies and services in ways that exacerbate other social and economic inequalities in and across societies.
The Evolution of Diverse Devices
Wireless telegraphy emerged in the very early years of the twentieth century, followed shortly by mobile telephone networks, with experiments as early as 1918. As Michael Noll put it: ‘
Mobile wireless is what the crew of the Titanic used to send distress signals when it hit the iceberg’
(Noll, Personal Interview, 2014). However, mobile only became practical for personal communication by the general public with the development of cellular technologies, which enabled the same radio frequencies to be used simultaneously in nearby areas (cells) without interference, which has greatly expanded the number of people who could share the same radio frequency spectrum. Since that time, the widespread availability and affordability of the mobile cell phone quickly undermined the large market for pagers.
Early cell (mobile) phone use was focused on voice calls, but the popularity of text over mobile phones rose quickly to mimic aspects of earlier paging systems, albeit in more versatile ways. Even in 2014, most concepts of the mobile phone remain anchored in mobile voice and text services provided through licensed spectrum. Nonetheless, the diversity of devices and network infrastructures that can deliver these services, and more, has grown dramatically. For example, the use of computer-mediated systems, such as Skype, for voice and video calls is continuing to grow rapidly, making laptop computers, for example, a growing mobile communication device.
A basic mobile phone, or ‘feature phone’, has limited capabilities, being focused primarily on voice and text messaging. While they remain an important segment of the market in many nations, they are being replaced by many individuals with phones that have more digital computing capabilities—a ‘smartphone’—that includes the facilities of a feature phone, but also the ability to take notes and diarize, take and send digital photos and video clips, build on global positioning satellites (GPS) tracking, and use a growing variety of sensors. They also enable the use of the Internet and Web for browsing, sending email, and running many third-party applications (apps). For many, the simple mobile phone has transformed into a handheld, touch screen, networked computer that enables access to the Internet while stationary or on the move. Professor Lim (2014) argued that across much of urban Asia, mobile is ‘almost synonymous with wireless Internet’, but globally, there is more often a division between mobile only and mobile Internet access.