If there’s one thing that technology manufacturers will never learn, it’s that the technology doesn’t drive consumer demand. It’s the consumers who drive the technology. There are a litany of technologies that failed due to lack of consumer adoption: Sinclair C5, The Segway (it’s there, but it’s still niche), interactive TV (it was considered a real competitor to the internet in the 19902) and video calling. In fact the mobile space is particularly good at assuming that having the technology is simply enough to get consumers using it. When 3g first came out in the UK, the network Three focussed on video calling, as if we were all crying out for it. It didn’t make sense. Video calling had been available on fixed lines for a while, and the internet was capable of offering something similar (for a lot less money). Given that there hadn’t been a wide adoption at that point, why would people suddenly start doing it on their mobile phones? There are certain situations where a video call can be useful or fun, but for the most part they are few and far between.
I was somewhat surprised to see that Apple thought they could re-invent video calling with their FaceTime on the iPhone 4. The TV ads are even reminiscent of the early 3g ads. OK, to be fair Apple have been successful in redefining consumer technologies before. Their combination of beautifully design products with a great user interface has ensured their success. However, there is nothing significantly different about Apple’s video calling that should bring about a shift in consumer adoption. I haven’t seen any figures, but there are no reports of FaceTime taking off, and certainly amongst my friends, none of them use it.
However, the front facing camera on the iPhone 4 does have a useful purpose. Women use it as a mirror to do their make-up. A friend pointed this out a few weeks ago. I thought it was a great idea, but didn’t know if that many women bothered with it. But they do! I’ve spotted quite a few people using their iPhone 4s front camera to do their hair or make-up on The Tube. I love the fact that no matter what technologists try and throw at us, ultimately the consumer will pick up the bits they find useful, and run with it. It happened with SMS. It was never supposed to be this big. But teenagers adopted it as it was fast and cheap. They’re now doing the same with BBM (BlackBerry Messenger).
A few years ago a company invented a system called The Mosquito. It emitted an annoying high pitched noise that only teenagers could hear. It was used around shops and shopping centres to stop them hanging around. It was controversial and the matter was taken to the European Court of Human Rights. That aside, what the teenagers did was to record the noise on their phones and use it as their ringtone. They could hear it, but their teachers couldn’t. So it meant they could still use their phones in class to text each other without the teacher knowing. Who says that today’s teenagers have no imagination?