Call Me, Maybe … But Not on That Device

Call Me, Maybe … But Not on That Device
by: Deb Linton, Corey Hyllested, Lazar Stojkovic

Today, savvy consumers are aware of the symbiotic relationship between users, technology platforms, and their producers. This wasn’t always the case. In “America Calling,” the nascent Bell telephone network and its proprietors didn’t appreciate the emergent behaviors in its users until it understood how to monetize them. Bell saw its recommended use of the new technology as the only one valid to be supported and endorsed. While we may like to think of this problem as limited to early 20th century, we see divergent views of how to incorporate user behavior even today.

We see the similar low-key conflict between companies and users in a related field – mobile phones. We look at the recent events and the different approaches taken by a government agency and a high tech organization as they develop mobile technology standards to better serve the public. Recently, the Library of Congress’s three-year exemption to allow unlocking of mobile phones to be used on another carrier’s network expired. Additionally, Mozilla announced it is creating its own mobile phone.

Mozilla is responding to what it perceives as the mobile zeitgeist. Where Apple benefits from a uniform experience created by a highly mediated, closed-off, and integrated environment, Mozilla is creating an unlocked mobile phone that comes in multiple hardware models and is supported by an open-environment. By embracing what “America Calling” might identify as a constructivist approach, the company is looking at the larger social context of mobile and offering phones with greater choice. Mozilla is betting people care about cost, speed, and – most of all – freedom to choose. By offering a phone integrating the web browser and operating system, it can move away from the native apps that live behind walled-gardens of Apple and Google, and move towards a simple “web app” experience that only necessitate browsing. The integrated browsing/OS experience is likely aimed at what Olia Lialina might call the Turing Complete User — not those willing pay a premium for ease, nor those that will hack the phone inside-out — but users that are competent and efficient with mobile technology.

This is in contrast to government agency with developments letting the exemption expire, the Library of Congress established unlocked phones available for purchase and the software running on those devices isn’t owned- it’s licensed and users shouldn’t be permitted to alter it to meet their needs. The decision made by the Library of Congress reflects a growing trend of specialized and highly mediated mobile tools. Mobile devices, e.g. Apple’s iPhone, are predicated upon strong company decisions dictating the role, access, and functionality provided to users. With this trend often comes lock-in or classification around certain types of permitted communications. While this generates more user-friendly devices and a lower barrier to entry, it also enforces a deterministic view of technological evolution that prohibits adaptability – sometimes to the extreme detriment of select users in select situations.

One of us three had the misfortune of being in a car accident over the past winter break. The moment his car flew off the frozen mountain road bend, the first thought that surprisingly popped up in their mind was: “crap, my iPhone battery is dead – how will I call for help once this is all over?” A decade ago, it wouldn’t be a big deal – back then, our classmate was using Nokia phones which allowed for easy battery removal. Consequently, they always had a fully charged extra battery on his person – just in case. Their switch to Apple devices a couple of years later turned their phone into a locked-down black box. While there are benefits to Apple phones, a more mediated form of communication meant less adaptability in a time of need.

We have yet to see a clear agreement on the role of user contribution in the mobile arena. We have observed that consumers have a threshold at which they will permit their interactions to be mediated but we have also seen how various degrees of mediation is causing communication to become increasingly specialized. These issues are relevant in broad array of networked social technology from the early development of America’s telephone network to various mobile consumer preference for interactivity. In both cases, the role of ambiguity (intentional or unintentional) has affected the adoption and resulted in unexpected adaptations.

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