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Two Phones Diverged in a Wood

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2nd Oct 2008

3 GSMSaturday, 10 February 2007

This week the 2007 3GSM World Congress takes place in Barcelona, attracting over 40,000 delegates to discuss the future of mobile communications that affect over 2.2 billion people around the world.

Hub Culture was there with another Salon on Wednesday, 14 February, and highlights will appear soon.

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Prada from head to toe, and now in ear
Prada takes the high road with their new LG phone collaboration. Prada's January announcement of a collaboration with LG to produce a phone represents another attempt for phone makers to appeal to increasingly sophisticated advanced phone users. The phone will begin arriving in mid March and offers touchscreen capabilities similar to Apple's iPhone. It is different from previous luxury branded phones in that Prada's input was taken onboard during the internal development of the phone. Features like a monochromatic display, photo and video capabilities with a good lens by German manufacturer Schneider-Kreuznach, and interesting picture formatting displays are all generating good buzz.

On the negative side, early reports indicate that buyers will need to massively upgrade the memory to get any real use of the video and photo capabilities, and sometimes the touchscreen can be a little slow in registering your finger movements.

The Prada phone is of course just the latest in a saga of luxury projects in the phone sector: starting with Vertu and the concept of luxury phones, and most recently with the rebadged RAZR by Dolce & Gabbana, which appealed only to the wrong sort of people: as the RAZR went mass, the hip set realized that it had lost its cachet, and dumped it quickly. Plus the interface wasn't great.

Introducing a rebadged RAZR to appeal to them did little because the phone did nothing new. It remains to be seen if people will laugh at a Prada phone owner, or smirk in jealousy, because fashion for fashion's sake is rarely, if ever, truly fashionable.

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Making a statement. The ultimate accessory?
Unless the phone is truly better than anything else out there, it won't be accepted, and that was the lesson learned with the D&G RAZR.

Meanwhile, the developing world is exploding for telecom and Grameenphone is taking a very different path to serve this need. The importance of mobile in the developing world in hard to underestimate, and the experience of Bangladesh in this regard is a good example. In 1996 there were fewer than 10,000 mobile phones in Bangladesh, and less than a million fixed lines. Just over ten years later, the number of fixed lines is roughly constant but there are approaching 10 million cellular subscribers in the country.

This rapid explosion of communications capability is led by Grameenphone and was the result of a joint venture funded by Grameen Foundation (of Mohammad Yunus fame) and Telstor (of subsequent lawsuits fame). Together they have transformed Bangladesh by offering cooperatives the chance to jointly own phones, and by founding village programs to enable women to sell minutes as a form of local telephone operator. The impact on Bangladesh has been huge, and reflects what is happening all around the world. Africa is the world's fastest growing mobile phone market, and most of urban Asia is already completely wired.

Decisions for mobile telecom policy are taken in London, Seoul and Tokyo, not New York and Silicon Valley. Yet as ultra-light PCs and web based applications move rapidly into the mobile sphere this may change, but for now much of the power base is not in the US - especially since only 6-8% of the global market is located there.

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Wired Bangladeshi farmer thanks to Grameenphone
So we see two paths diverging in a wood - advanced consumers seek luxury and fashion to differentiate themselves in a commodity market, and the Prada phone will surely be a hit for those people who seek a luxury communications "instrument" - in the words of original high end phone maker Vertu. The global huddled masses now have their Nokias, whether by group or by individual, where it changes lives and opens up a world of new business, communication, and very soon, media opportunities.

The bigger question is about what happens when those two divergent paths reunite. We have been trying to put a finger on an idea that is beginning to simmer in a lot of places, especially Latin America: GLOBAL SOLIDARITY. What happens when large numbers of disenfranchised people across the world begin to realize they have more in common with each other than the elites in their own countries?

What happens when you feed MTV bling to a person who earns $10 a month day in and day out? And then what happens when it becomes possible for that person to flash mob on a global scale? Maybe its a good thing the Prada phone is so thin - no one will even notice the bulge in your pocket, especially after the revolution begins.