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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Turning mobiles into objects of desire
You can hear Jon Wurtzel every week on the BBC's Go Digital
BBC Go Digital's Jon Wurtzel casts a wry eye over developments in the world of technology

With worldwide mobile phone sales declining for the first time in the history of the industry, manufacturers are looking for new ways to tempt us to buy their new handsets.

Technological features as well as flexible and competitive payment options were previously viewed as key factors driving mobile phone purchases or upgrades.

But high market saturation along with the increasing expense of high-end models is limiting this kind of sales appeal.

Instead, manufacturers are increasingly emphasising phone design. Within this marketing strategy, the phone's underlying technology is downplayed against its surface features.

The cover becomes more important than the book.

Personalise your phone

Some of the ways manufacturers are designing their phones to create distinctive products are familiar.

Flip-top phone
New phones back many features
They include small sizes, unusual shapes, flip tops, colour screens, even joysticks as navigational devices.

Add to this list easy to rotate skins, or external cases, with different colours and textures.

This ability to change a phone's appearance not only allows users to play with and accentuate their mobile's design, it also enables phone companies to sell a wide range of add-on products at what is likely to be a considerable mark-up and profit.

Further phone features that accentuate lifestyle and design above the technology enabling them include voice-activated dialling, mini-cameras and radios.

Packed with features

Of course, this attention to product design does not imply that technological innovations in cellular phones are not emerging, expanding the market and attracting users.

Handheld computers
Barrier blurred between phones and handheld PCs
Options and features such as Wap, GPRS, Tri-band and a version of I-Mode in the US are being launched or refined.

Keeping track of all of this is a constant group of early adopters keen to announce they are on top of the latest trend by flashing their newest gadget.

But even this audience does not seem to be purchasing the latest mobile features as they have in the past - even in the technological hothouse that is the Japanese market.

By emphasising a mobile phone as a piece of design, the phone manufacturers aim to get users to change their thinking about how cell phones fit into their lives.

Instead of being seen as a technology appliance permitting people to carry out a task, the phone becomes a fashion statement asserting the taste and style of the user.

The really successful design can even achieve another status entirely: the fetish object.

You can hear Jon Wurtzel on Go Digital, which is webcast on BBC News Online every Monday at 1500 GMT. Or you can listen to the programme on BBC World Service radio on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

See also:

22 Apr 02 | Business
Drastic action at ailing Ericsson
11 Mar 02 | Business
Mobile phone sales fall
25 Jan 02 | Business
Signs of hope for mobile makers
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