The mobile menace

Although they have brought a lot of social and commercial benefits with them, mobile phones also offer the potential for bad behaviour, thinks Tim Rich.

Oscar Wilde (Liam Neeson) was about to deliver a finely tuned observation when a mobile phone burst into voice five rows in front of me. Its owner had buried the phone so deep in his briefcase that he had to hold the bag up and shove his entire arm into it, James Herriot-style. He rummaged frenetically for eight annoying rings before finding the errant device and pushing “end”. The play, The Judas Kiss by David Hare, was set in the 19th century. The audience’s willing suspension of disbelief was punctured.

If today’s mobiles were half as cumbersome as the now laughable user terminals of yesteryear – the sort that turned their owners into Quasimodo – more people would remember they had one in their bag. This is a design success story. The technology has been so brilliantly devised and manufactured that it integrates seamlessly into our lives. Today’s mobiles are lightweight, simple to operate and relatively inexpensive. We feel comfortable with them. On the other hand, many users have yet to develop the etiquette required to make public use of their contraption acceptable to others.

In fact, mobile communications technology has leapt way ahead of user intelligence. How many meetings have you been in when someone’s mobile goes off… and they take the call? How often have you been on a train and a Tannoy-voiced corporate bore has decided to dial everyone in his company to tell them the train is running six and a half minutes late? And why do you have to listen to a call from a client who sounds as if they’re three feet from Niagara Falls?

While the phones and the services get smarter, many users have barely evolved. Look around and you’ll see beautiful, sophisticated machines, such as the new, chrome Alcatel Mondial or the compact Sony CMD-Z1, being bellowed into by a lout in a suit. It’s like a caveman trying to drive a Porsche Boxter.

Why is this the case when Internet users have formulated an accepted worldwide code for on-line behaviour? Netiquette is important – try crashing into a user group with a list of daft questions and see how many bitchy e-mail “flames” you get in your post box the next morning. It’s the same with the conventional telephone. Greeting a caller with “what?” or – that old favourite of the Apple Computer UK technical helpline – putting someone on hold for 30 minutes still happens, but most people have now mastered conventional phone manners.

In business the consequences of mobile abuse can be severe. A managing director friend of mine deleted a design consultancy from a pitch list when one of its designers took a call during the credentials presentation. Recently, on a train, I was sitting next to a bellowing marketing operative from a brewery who discussed details of an imminent ad campaign; I phoned an advertising journalist-friend with the details as soon as I got off the train.

Of course, mobiles have brought many genuinely useful social and commercial benefits. Along with laptop computers they have helped create a more flexible approach to work. Many people can operate at home, do a bit on the train or in a hotel room. But we shouldn’t mistake flexibility for universality. The number 38 bus is not an appropriate place to discuss your junior designer’s career prospects and a meeting room packed with expensive brains trying to solve a vital issue is no place for a call from your production manager telling you the server has gone down.

Next time I’m in a meeting and someone takes a mobile call without a meaningful pre-explanation I’m going to wait patiently for them to finish their airwave chitter-chatter then tell them to stick their user terminal where the coverage is non-existent.

Part of the problem is that mobile addiction and a feeling of indispensability often go hand in hand. So many people in our business seem to believe their studio will collapse into anarchy unless they contact their designers telephonically every 20 minutes. Perhaps they should spend less money on mobile communications and more on management training.

Mobiles are about to enter a new stage – affordable global mobile satellite communications. Before the year is out you will be able to make a call from anywhere in sight of a satellite to any telephone on the planet. This will have genuine benefits for people working beyond cellular coverage, but it might take others further into mobile addiction. I see it now; hundreds of holidaying designers emerging from tropical rain forests or crashing surf, flipping their phone open and ringing the studio to see if the server is OK.

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