I was forty when I learned to use a computer and forty five when I finally bought my now obselete IBM Thinkpad. At that time laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) still required a hairdresser' set of cables to get online, and they connected poorly and slowly. Reading and sending e-mail via a mobile phone – not to mention synchronising it across several gadgets and computers to create one "virtual"in-box – was something out of Star Trek -- but today's kids use it effortlessly.
The Blackberry booth at a mobile exhibition (File photo)
Another cool toy I got after forty was the digital camera. In my youth people took photos using film and were careful of each shot because the film and developing cost so much money. Now cameras of all sizes and prices are available and they're often added to cell phones as well. Every child is an amatueur photographer these days.
In Beijing I have a bi-lingual dictionary on my phone that speaks and lets me write characters. Some phones I've heard have perfumed ring tones and most have fantastic music ipod storage. Video capacity on mobile phones has arrived in China but still isn't popular in the West. In Beijing cheap high-speed wireless networks are snapping into place and microprocessors that power phones are getting good enough to handle anything a person wants: TV channels and movies, music, games and Internet. Truly young kids are carrying around their social and entertainment lives in their pockets. "One of the beauties of mobile is it allows you to place-shift," said Paul Reddick, vice president at Sprint Nextel. "A TiVo lets you time-shift by recording something to watch later. Place-shifting takes that a step further, letting you watch something in a different place than usual.”
iPhones and Blackberries have slammed into the China market as well. The BlackBerry, designed by Research In Motion (RIM), a Canadian firm, has since 1999 made e-mail on the go seem normal for business yuppies. And there's no denying that an iPhone is a computer made for web browsing. And unless you're really young, it's faster – a lot faster – than the computers you owned not so long ago.
This historic merger, at long last, of two technologies – cell phones and computers – has already proved revolutionary. The mobile phone has changed the world by becoming ubiquitous in rich and poor countries alike. The Internet is used worldwide and more in China than in any other country in the world. These technologies have already changed the way people shop, bank, listen to music, read news and socialise. Now Chinese mobile phones are ready to replace the PC as the primary device for getting online.
Indeed, mobile communications are already changing interactions between people. Traditional nomadic lifestyles keep people close, especially family members. But to be frank it may do so at the expense of strangers encountered physically (rather than virtually) in daily life. This has serious implications for Chinese society at large.