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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Mobile phone is a staple food

International Telecommunications Union says the number of active mobile phones will reach 7.3 billion in 2014, more than people on earth.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Updated: April 13, 2014 8:56:27 am
The mobile phone is the world’s unique staple today, higher than any single staple food. (Reuters) The mobile phone is the world’s unique staple today, higher than any single staple food. (Reuters)

“Electra telephono! Dmitri telephono! Theodore telephono!”
These were costly international calls. They used to come to the only general landline in the basement corridor of Fondation Hellénique inside the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris campus. Greek students would get calls from parents and friends in Greece. Whoever was in the corridor would lift the receiver and then knock on the door of the relevant person.

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 residential space to 40 countries. 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 300 francs per month as rent from the 500 francs I received working as a sweeper in a print shop. I could afford nothing else, so getting 10ftx8ft space within four walls, a 5ftx6ft bed, wash basin, chair, reading table, shared toilet and an outside kitchen, was a godsend. From my basement skylight I could see people’s legs walking around 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 wasn’t 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 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 Kubrick’s 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 dialling a number” and that this would 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 Bell’s invention, different scientists have taken this technology forward. Originally you held two parts, for talking and hearing. Subsequently, it became the single talk-and-hear phone. In 1891, French engineer Ernest Mercadier invented in-ear headphones. Red public telephone booths on England’s streets have been iconic since the 1920s; a few such kiosks still exist. I’d barely used a phone before I left India in 1973.

France showed me the evolution of phone models; from dial-ups to touch phones in 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 in every street corner, and were always occupied with a big queue. All French cafes were equipped with behind-the-counter special phones that you used by paying for a geton (phone coin).

India’s PCO (public call office) started in 1988. That’s also when I installed a phone in my parents’ home in Kolkata as I could afford the calling cost then. Using a phone was a pent-up demand; rapid PCO growth, from 197,000 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, as though it is staple food.

Mobile phone as a staple: My first mobile phone in France in 1989 was from Motorola, about 6”x2”x2” 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 3-inch vibration mode flap-top Motorola phone, I’d 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 the big size screen as the future trend. Nokia, 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. I’d mentioned that it’s difficult to recall mobile types segmented as numerical series.

My market learning was that many alphabets in the same button and small screen were not customer friendly. When Indian managers said that convincing the headquarters in Finland was impossible, I understood their nonchalance for customer sensitivity. Late 2007 saw Apple iPhones mesmerise the market with a big screen. The past two years have had Samsung with big screens become the market leader.

Emptiness sans mobile staple: 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. International Telecommunications Union says the number of active mobile phones will reach 7.3 billion in 2014, more than 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. It is so coveted that as per 2012 San Francisco police data, 50 per cent of all robberies were mobile phone thefts.

It’s 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 world’s unique staple today, higher than any single staple food. Proliferating like wildfire, it’s touching every human being. Without this 21st century’s staple, we are lost.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at

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