Mobile Phones Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mobile Phones

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Some mobile phones.

This Entry was updated in September 2011.

Mobile phones, also known as cell phones or just mobiles, were launched for the public in the 1970s, initially on first generation (1G) proprietary analogue networks in Japan, the USA, and the Nordic countries, rapidly followed by other European countries. Prices were high and international roaming was very limited because most countries used a different type of network technology. To overcome this problem, and also to reduce costs by manufacturing components in high volume, a second generation (2G) of mobile networks and phones was developed in the 1980s using digital technology. This also had the aim of introducing roaming across national boundaries. Hence the dominant GSM1 standard was born, along with a rival CDMA2 standard in some countries.

Since then, third generation (3G) networks (UMTS3 and CDMA4) have been deployed to provide higher speed internet access and a much larger capacity for handling data as well as voice traffic, and in the 2010s a fourth generation (4G) is beginning to emerge into commercial service, using two competing technologies called WiMAX5 and LTE6, which will offer even faster broadband internet access.

During this 40-year period, the mobile phone has changed beyond recognition, becoming smaller, and lighter, with higher speed internet access, and a host of software applications. Other additions include an MP3 music or MP4 video player, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi short-range wireless, front-and rear-facing still and video cameras, GPS7, an accelerometer, and even a gyroscope. Some have a touch screen instead of a keypad for number dialling and text input, as well as for navigating between applications. The latest smartphones are at the leading-edge of this continuing design process. Lower cost models provide some of these features and offer the consumer a wide range of options from which to choose. Business users are also catered for with features like e-mail linked to the enterprise server, and Wi-Fi access in the office, using the mobile as a cordless phone.

Inside the Mobile Phone

Mobile phones use digital electronics on silicon integrated circuits (chips) to perform the signal processing needed to turn radio signals received by the antenna into voice, text and images. These processors are software controlled and mostly run an operating system, similar to personal computers. They have been optimised for mobile applications to reduce power consumption and perform real-time activities very quickly. The chips are made in very high volumes to reduce unit cost. There are around 6 billion mobile phones in use, most of them having a processor running an operating system.

Intel, ARM, Qualcomm, Nokia, RIM, HTC, Palm, Motorola, Microsoft, LG, TI, Sun Microsystems, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, and Apple design processors and/or operating systems. With these processors and operating systems, mobile phones are now able to do most things found on a personal computer, in addition to making and receiving phone calls, using the operator's voice service or using a VOIP8 service, such as Skype.

There is a wide range of mobile phones from basic models with voice and text messages at €20 to top of the range smartphones at over €600, depending on the processor speed, the amount of flash9 memory, the screen size and its resolution, and additional features such as cameras and music or video players. Consequently smartphones have only a 10% share of mobile phone annual sales currently. Much as the mobile phone is replacing the landline phone, the smartphone could eventually replace some laptop or netbook personal computers. Dell's latest Streak smartphone is going to test this idea.

The main operating systems for smartphones include those from Nokia/Symbian, RIM, Apple, Microsoft, Nokia/Linux and Android. The industry is looking closely at how well Google's open Android system progresses in the market compared with Symbian, the market leader, and Apple's latest iOS which is used across its iPod, iPhone, and iPad product range.

Outside the Mobile Phone

The industrial design for mobile phones has been through several iterations beginning with the basic 'brick' designs of the 1970s, which were large and cumbersome, simply because of the size of batteries and the analogue electronics inside the phone. As fewer chips are now needed, because of higher levels of integration and smaller batteries, phone size is not dictated by its components, leading to 'clamshell', 'slider', and 'tablet' designs. Also, as higher-speed internet access is now provided by the networks, larger screens provide better picture resolution for richer content. These also incorporate touch screen technology to replace or supplement keypads. The latest generation of smartphones provide screen sizes and resolutions approaching some netbook personal computers and may be used to read on-line books, competing with eBooks such as Amazon's Kindle10. Screen resolution has now reached high-definition levels with a pixel density of more than 300 pixels per inch (ppi).

Paying for a Mobile Phone

A mobile phone has three, maybe four, costs for the user (neglecting battery recharging, which is almost negligible).

  • The first cost is the handset itself, which may be purchased outright or bundled with a contract for mobile telephony service. This often includes a subsidy to defray the initial cost of the phone; however it does tie the user into a monthly contract for a period of one to two years.

  • The second cost is for voice (or phone) calls, text messages and internet access; collectively known as airtime. This may be pre-paid or post-paid. A pre-paid service requires the user to buy airtime credit from the operator, which is debited as airtime is used. The user subsequently 'tops-up' their credit by buying more airtime from the operator. A post-paid service is like a landline phone service where the operator bills the user monthly in arrears for airtime (less any free items such as bundled voice minutes, number of texts, and amount of data downloaded), and monthly in advance for equipment.

  • The third cost, which is becoming more significant, is the charge for applications and access to third party-provided services. Music, video, navigation and other location-based services, games, TV, as well as other special software-based applications allows the user to take full advantage of their phone's capabilities. The Apple App Store has more than 400,000 applications which may be downloaded directly to the iPhone; some are free. The Android OS has the Android Market with a smaller (but growing) range of downloadable applications. RIM, Microsoft, Palm and Nokia provide similar applications stores.

  • A typical example is the Financial Times iPhone application, which allows access to a broad range of FT news, comment and analysis, markets data and full access to stock portfolios. Although the application is a free download, it requires a subscription to This is an example of a media supplier extending access to its paid-for services to mobile phones. There are many others from media providers, including the The Guardian and Daily Telegraph. (The BBC's is currently on hold, but Stephen Fry's 'app' is up and running).

  • Another cost that may be necessary is to acquire a femtocell. This is a small base station located in the home, which connects to the mobile using a short-range signal and is used where the signal from the nearest public base station is too weak. It also plugs into your broadband provider's network so that calls and internet access are taken via that network rather than the mobile network. This will reduce airtime charges. They cost around €200. Thinking about it, depending on your mobile usage at home, it could be worthwhile buying a femtocell even if your coverage is already acceptable, simply to reduce your airtime costs.

The Social Impact of Mobile Phones

Hi. Yeah. Oh. Yeah. Right. Ok. In about an hour.... I said, about an hour. What? ....Right....Bye.

Mobile phones let you talk to people far away who may also have a mobile phone. Mobiles seem to be used by people who spend a lot of their time travelling in order to meet other people. This makes one wonder why they didn't simply call each other on their mobile phones in the first place. Now equipped with video cameras and many applications, it becomes even easier to have a multi-media conversation that could replace many journeys. Could the latest generation of smartphones kill off the travel industry, or is travel perceived as a reward for being good?

One unwanted side effect of mobile phones is that they take the privacy of a phone call and thrust it in other people's faces, even if they never asked for it in the first place. The annoyance of listening to one half of someone else's conversation while being immobilised in a rush hour crush is one of the great irritations of life, though oddly the perpetrators do not seem to see it that way.

The man with the irritating laugh is getting on the train, and you just know that he's going to sit across the aisle from you. In the old days, the worst you could expect was an inane conversation or an annoying sniff, but now you can be certain that within minutes he'll have pulled out his mobile phone and be telling somebody which train he's on. (It's probably the same one as yesterday). However, with a probability directly in proportion to the grating loudness of his voice, he will then launch into the most extraordinarily mundane conversation which everybody in the carriage is forced to follow, word for word, simply because it is so loud. Thankfully, some trains now have 'quiet carriages' where mobile phones are to be switched off.

One of the worst fears of the listeners, of course, is that their own phone might burst into unwanted life, usually with an amusing (misnamed) ringtone tune or ditty, leaving them whispering, red-faced in the corner as the imagined assembled eyes of the carriage bore into their embarrassed heads. The reason is, of course, that almost all of us carry mobiles, especially the increasing numbers of migrant workers who move about from place to place, and who do not necessarily have a fixed location.

Annoying as they are in other people's hands, mobile phones are also very useful. Worried about your children or parents? Give them a mobile. Worried about breaking down in the rain or losing your way on the moors? Take a mobile. Lost on the way to a friend's house? Call them from your mobile or switch on the GPS application for instructions.

There are some legal restrictions on using a mobile phone. Talking on a mobile phone while driving a vehicle, except when it has a hands-free capability, is illegal in many countries. Sending or reading text messages is also not allowed while driving. Traffic accidents caused by drivers using a mobile phone clasped to their ear while trying to negotiate a road junction or roundabout are more likely, not only because they cannot steer properly, but also because they are concentrating on a half-heard instruction from their boss or laughing at a remark from a girl friend. Some organisations have banned the use of mobile phones on their premises for safety or antisocial reasons. In 2010, the incoming UK prime minister banned mobile phones from cabinet meetings. Could this lead to a more general trend where all mobile phones are to be handed in to a phone concierge on entering a public building, much as firearms were deposited in the Wild West by cowboys?

Waiting for the train, bus or plane? Turn to your mobile to catch up on e-mails, text messages, the football scores, and even watch the game streamed from your TV provider. You may also play video games, watch a film, investigate the impact of your latest tweets, postings, or comments, and browse the applications store for new things to download. But, be careful not to get so engrossed that you miss the train, bus or plane you were waiting for!

Mobile phone conversations also allow you to laugh loudly at jokes no-one else can hear; to pretend to be talking about a really important business deal when in fact you're enquiring about the delivery date of the next consignment of paper clips for the stationery cupboard; and, most importantly, to feel wanted. As if that wasn't enough, you can also engage in text tennis to see who finally gives up trying to be funnier about an issue of the day.

One of the advantages of a mobile phone is that it replaces the landline phone, which has a wire attached (if you don't have a cordless extension in the bedroom) so that you can trip over it in the middle of the night when you really need a drink of water from the kitchen (if you don't have a bathroom or a water cooler in the bedroom). Despite this advantage, the first time you should use a mobile phone is when it's freshly out of the box, when you should call another phone a short distance away, just to check that it makes and receives calls, and handles text messages, and the Bluetooth works to transfer stored numbers.

1Groupe Speciale Mobile, the standard produced by the International Telecommunications Union, part of the United Nations.2Code Division Multiple Access, produced by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) of the USA.3Universal Mobile Telecommunications Network, derived from GSM using Wideband CDMA.4With additional network elements for broadband data transmission.5Produced by the IEEE of the USA, related to the Wi-Fi standard.6Long Term Evolution, related to the GSM standard from the ITU.7Satellite-based terrestrial navigation service from the Global Positioning System.8Voice Over Internet Protocol.9Non-volatile semiconductor memory chips, usually in the form of an SD card.10The h2g2 search engine selected this Entry for 'kindle', which can mean 'to arouse', apparently.

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