I lived my early years in France inside this 100-acre unique park for students and academics in southern Paris, where the French government gave 40 countries space for residences. I had no official scholarship, so India House refused me a room. But Dr Georgoulis, a kind-hearted Sorbonne University professor in charge of Greek House, liked my paintings and accommodated me, a part-time art student. I paid a rent of 300 French francs per month from my salary of 500 francs that I got from working as a sweeper in a print shop. I could afford nothing else, so getting a 10 ft x 8 ft space within four walls, a 5 ft x 6 ft bed, wash basin, chair, reading table, shared toilet and kitchen outside was a godsend. From my basement skylight, I could see peoples legs walking in the garden. Weekends were boisterously busy for our corridor public phone. I could never expect a call from my parents in their underprivileged economic situation. Moreover, it wasnt easy to call from India then. Only the affluent few had phones at home. For an international trunk-call booking, you had to visit the telephone exchange and a call could take hours or days in the mid-1970s. Happily, I learnt several Greek terms of endearment and swear words listening to the continuous telephone chatter outside my room.
The idea of personal calls enamoured everyone except inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first practical telephone in 1876. He considered the phone an intrusion and refused to have one in his study! Science-fiction writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke, most well-known for the screenplay of Stanley Kubriks film, 2001: A Space Odyessy, actually predicted in 1959 that the time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on earth merely by dialing a number and this will be through a personal transceiver, so small and compact that every man carries one. In fact, his vision included global positioning, so that no one need ever again be lost.
Since Scotsman Bells invention, different scientists have taken this technology forward. Originally, you held two parts, for talking and hearing. Subsequently came the single talk-and-hear phone. In 1891, French engineer Ernest Mercadier invented in-ear headphones. Red public telephone booths on Englands streets have become iconic since the 1920s and a few such kiosks still exist. I had barely used a phone before I left India in 1973. France showed me the phone model evolution from dialing, touch phones to different colours. Street-phone booths for public use soon attracted vandalism. So the government introduced tele-carte, an embedded chip smartcard you could pick up from tabacs (tobacco shops). Initially spaced apart, these phone boxes soon erupted at every street corner, were always occupied and had big queues. All the French cafes were equipped with behind-the-counter special phones that you could use by paying for a geton (phone coin).
Indias PCO (public call office) started in 1988. Thats also when I got a phone installed in my parents home in Kolkata, as I could afford the calling costs then. Using a phone was a pent-up demand; rapid PCO growth from 1,97,000 in 1994 to 2.38 million by 2006 made that evident. But the advent of the mobile phone, first introduced in India by Modi Telstra in Kolkata on July 31, 1995, made PCOs lose their sheen. As per Trai data, India already has 900 million mobile phones. Almost everyone seems to need it like staple food.
Mobile as staple: My first mobile phone in France in 1989 was of the Motorola brand; about 6 x 2 x 2, with a huge, low-longevity battery. I had to carry two extra-big batteries and a sizable charger. It was awful putting the mobile phone in the pocket. Later, when I got the three-inch vibration-mode flap-top Motorola phone, I would paste colourful stickers and place it on the table during corporate meetings in India. It would vibrate in front of me, becoming a welcome distracting toy everybody made fun of.
Big-screen staple: In 2005, having done consumer research for a Silicon Valley client, we recommended big-size screens as the future trend. Nokia, the market leader and a benchmark since 1995, had small screens, so the client chose not to take our big-screen suggestion. In 2007, I had the chance to work for Nokia in India. Id mentioned its difficult to recall mobile types segmented as numerical series. My market learning was that many alphabets on the same button and a small screen were not customer-friendly. When Indian managers said that convincing the Finland headquarters was impossible, I understood their nonchalance for customer sensitivity. Late 2007 saw Apple iPhones mesmerise the market with a big screen. The last two years have had Samsung with big screens become the market leader.
Emptiness sans mobile staple: An immense desire to possess it has made the mobile phone like staple food. No other individual gadget has been more craved for by people across the world. The International Telecommunications Union says the number of active mobile phones will reach 7.3 billion in 2014, more than the number of people on earth. Compared to other daily requirements, only 4.5 billion people have access to working toilets and 1.1 billion globally have no access to clean, safe, drinking water. Its so coveted that, as per 2012 San Francisco police data, 50% of all robberies were mobile phone thefts.
Its happened. Almost everything converges on it, talking, writing, drawing, playing, watching TV or films, ordering food or travel needs, escort girls, supply chain coordination, among others. The mobile phone is the worlds unique staple today, higher than any single staple food. Proliferating like wildfire, its touching every human being. Without this 21st-century staple, we are lost.
Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence. Reach him at www.shiningconsulting.com