There are estimated to be 1.5 billion mobile phones in the world today (Prensky, 2004). This is more than three times the number of personal computers (PCs), and today’s most sophisticated phones have the processing power of a mid-1990s PC. These facts, and the range of computer-like functionality offered by top-of-the-range devices, are leading some observers to speculate that many people in the not so distant future will start to see the mobile phone as an alternative to a PC. For example Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the
Palm Pilot, was recently quoted (Stone 2004) as saying, ‘One day, 2 or 3 billion people will have cell phones, and they are not all going to have PCs … The mobile phone will become their digital life’. Sean Maloney,
an executive vice-president at Intel (also interviewed by Stone) disagrees, on the grounds that, ‘Hundreds of millions of people are not going to replace the full screen, mouse and keyboard experience with staring at
a little screen’. Clearly, neither view is likely to be completely objective, but the fact that the debate is happening is an indication of how powerful and sophisticated mobile devices are becoming.
In the m-learning project we chose to provide learners taking part in our learner research and learning materials and systems trials with the most sophisticated devices available at the time in an attempt to ensure that our findings do not become out of date too quickly. We tried to focus on the types of devices that will be owned by, or reasonably easily accessible to, our target audience (16–24 year olds not in full-time education or training) within 2 or 3 years of the end of the project. We are aware that the hybrid mobile phone/personal digital assistant (or PDA) devices we used (sometimes known as ‘smartphones’) currently make up only a relatively small percentage of mobile phone sales. However, sales are growing and the potential market for ‘smartphones’ is thought to be much bigger than the handheld computers market; indeed, ‘smartphones’ overtook sales of PDAs in 2003. Market research from Gartner, Canalys and others (quoted by van Grinsven 2004) indicates that ‘in four to five years, global sales of “smartphones” will reach 170 million, compared with slightly more than 20 million this year’. Also, the very rapid and widespread adoption
of camera phones suggests that our target audience is willing to invest in more expensive devices if they are attractive enough and offer significant actual or perceived benefits. Sales of camera phones exceeded those
of digital cameras for the first time in 2003, when camera phone sales increased almost fivefold from 2002, resulting in 84m unit sales.
The modern mobile phone market caters for a wide variety of customer tastes and lifestyles. Some phones are tiny and discreet, some are chosen for their appearance (like a fashion accessory, with alternative covers that allow that appearance to be changed to match the owner’s outfit), some just offer basic functionality while some others provide a wide range of business and leisure services to their users. Manufacturers are marketing diverse product ranges, including devices that specialise in providing particular services or are aimed at particular users. Instead of describing a product as a mobile phone, manufacturers often use descriptions like ‘game deck’, ‘communicator’ or ‘mobile multimedia machine’.