When a phone is no longer a phone

New York Times has a story that in the US the data traffic exceeded the voice traffic for mobile phone usages for the first time. The article reports that:

The number of text messages sent per user increased by nearly 50 percent nationwide last year, according to the CTIA, the wireless industry association. And for the first time in the United States, the amount of data in text, e-mail messages, streaming video, music and other services on mobile devices in 2009 surpassed the amount of voice data in cellphone calls, industry executives and analysts say.

This shows a unique pattern of digital innovation where evolution of a technology over time leads to the changes in the basic meaning of the technology. In other words, a phone is no longer just a phone. In fact, on many smart phones, phone has become one of many apps and in some cases, users may have more than one “phone” apps on their device. Right now in Japan, I never use the built-in phone app on my iPhone; instead, I use Skype exclusively when I call back home and Korea.
In 2004, DoCoMo surveyed its most active users under the age 30 to study their usages pattern. They found that 100% of them use their mobile phone for e-mail. But, only 2/3 of them ever used their mobile phone as phone. Back in 2004, this was a stunning finding to DoCoMo. 1/3 of their most active users never use their phone as a phone. As DoCoMo saw itself as a mobile “phone” operator, it was a wake-up call. They started looking for a way to redefine mobile phone something other than a phone and came up with the idea of “lifestyle infrastructure”.

As digital technology evolves, the key issue that companies need to wrestle with is “idea” that defines the evolving meaning of the product and mobilize its resources in order to support the new meaning. As a part of lifestyle infrastructure strategy, DoCoMo became a mobile bank, offering a full suit of retail banking services. As we can see here, an unintended consequence of digital innovation is the deconstruction of the meaning of product. The idea of product as a fixed and stable concept is becoming less and less useful.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

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