When did phones become Nikes?

I went to buy some sports shoes. There amidst a wall of design choice - Nike, Reebok, Asics, Puma, Adidas, running, walking, cross-training, hi-top, low-top, gel, pump and hydroflow - I wondered when men started to care so much about shoes. Wasn't that something that made us different to women? Shoes are such utilitarian things, but now we care that we have the latest model footwear and we pay a lot of money to get them.

And so it is with mobile phones. There is no gender parallel here, but who decided that a phone should be a designer statement? You answer it when it rings and push buttons to make a call. Why does it have to be fashion accessory?

Making the mobile a designer statement is clearly the brief for creators at the phone companies.

Motorola says you should "Stand out when you speak up". Nokia says they've "seen that you have your own style. And you want a phone that complements you. Stylish, intelligent and straight to the point". And Ericsson sells phones with "utterly modern colours - Urban Grey, Marble Beige and Mountain Heather". Mountain heather?

The basis of design differentiation is usually the pursuit of individuality - to stamp your identity on an object. This is also the source of those God-forsaken ringing tones. Late last year I heard something I doubt I will hear this millennium: I heard a mobile phone ring. Actually ring like phones used to do, not "play" "Waltzing Matilda" or "Yellow Rose of Texas".

While sitting with a couple of friends at the pub last week, a person at the next table played all the tunes on her mobile, one after the other. We finally cracked and asked her to stop, claiming that no-one's definition of a relaxing weekend drink included tinny digital versions of "Happy Birthday", "Auld Lang Syne" and "Flight of the Bumblebee".

But she wasn't to blame - it's the phone designers who put them in the phone. I refuse to believe that Nokia received lots of letters years ago, when they were dreaming up their first mobiles, along the lines of: "Please Mr Nokia, when you design your mobile phone, it would be great to include tacky electronic versions of tunes that no-one likes and have a universal ability to make people wince. These would be particularly useful for calls received on public transport. I would especially like "Jingle Bells"."

Let's face it: there should be mandatory sentencing for the person who allowed Casio-tone versions of "Shave and a Haircut" and "Ride of the Valkyries" to come from a phone.

And now we are supposed to embrace WAP (wireless application protocol) on our mobiles. Good technology - and by that I mean the considered marriage of form and function - should excite us. Television excited people when it arrived, the Internet excited people, but WAP makes me yawn. Stock quotes, horoscopes and weather reports on my mobile phone? Unless I am grossly mistaken, there are still a few mobile users who don't sit in cafés all day, monitoring their equity portfolios and watching out for hailstorms that could pulverise their BMWs. If the WAP people added some local traffic updates, TAB results and surf reports, it would be marginally more useful, but that sort of content sounds a bit low-brow for the current service providers.

The real challenge for WAP is retail, which is the Holy Grail for all dot-com frenzy. Just think about how you shop: if you are fortunate enough to have a full-time job, shopping is essentially restricted to weekends, lunch breaks and some extended trading hours each week. Australians just haven't embraced mail-order shopping like the Yanks.

Now the Internet is tempting us with online banking, groceries, gifts and plenty more, any time of the day. The next step is WAP wanting you to shop when you're on the bus going to work, when you're walking the dog, when you're watching your kid play netball, and when you're changing lanes at speed in your 4WD, phone clamped against your ear. WAP is for retail anytime, anywhere.

All hope is lost for the mobile phone - the accessorisation cannot be reversed. Last week I saw a woman having a very serious conversation into a teddy bear held to her ear. Where will this madness end? Maybe not before we're all talking into Pokemon-shaped phones that play "Stairway to Heaven" when our stockbroker calls.

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MARK STAFFORD

PC World
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