In the course of some of the work we have been doing recently, we have been thinking about the differences in mobile usage between the UK and the US. There are a lot of reasons why people use phones differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic:
- Early technology differences in the networks
- Business model differences from the networks
- Different handset adoption patterns (caused by technology and business model differences)
- Geographical differences
- and a variety of other social and technological factors
Without getting into the usage differences too much, I wanted to highlight two key language differences that I think have a significant impact on people’s way of thinking about much of mobile.
Cell vs. mobile
Handsets are ubiquitously called mobile phones (or mobiles) in the UK.
In the US, the normal terminology (from the cellular communication underpinning the network) is cell phone (or cell).
In and of itself, this different is not particularly noteworthy, but, when combined with one more factor, I think it provides a fascinating insight.
In both countries, the buzz is all about mobile internet (and, to a slightly lesser degree, mobile search). In the UK, my belief (given that we call the handsets ‘mobiles’), this is equivalent in people’s minds to ‘internet / search on the handset’.
I am not the right person to speculate on the US, but the fact that it isn’t the ‘cellular internet’ leads me to think that there would be a tendency for the man on the street to think about the ‘mobile internet’ as potentially distinct from the handset and more about any kind of internet access on the move (e.g. a laptop with a data card).
I have no data to back this up - it is pure speculation - but in conversation with a few Americans, I have gathered a bit of anecdotal evidence that there is a different way of thinking about the meaning of ‘mobile’ as it pertains to the internet.
Operator vs. Carrier
The other difference has less of an impact in my opinion, but I find it interesting the way the languages have evolved in parallel.
In the UK, we talk about mobile operators, mobile networks or, officially, MNOs: Mobile Network Operators. (There used to be 4 main operators: Vodafone, Orange, O2 and T-Mobile. They were joined by 3 a the 3G spectrum auctions and there are also now a variety of so-called MVNOs: Mobile Virtual Network Operators who don’t actually run a network but offer a branding / pricing / customer service differentiator piggy-backing on an established operator’s network e.g. Virgin Mobile, Tesco Mobile(+)).
As Orwell noted, the words we use to describe things have a huge impact on our feelings about those things. By calling the networks ‘carriers’ in the US, as mobile data services grow, there is a tendency to think of them as providing ‘just the pipe’. The carriers are desperate to avoid the fate of their fixed-line cousins who found themselves in a commoditised market shuttling bits between content providers and consumers. In the UK, I think the pull of the content providers will prove stronger than the walls on any kind of walled-garden ‘mobile internet’, but the ‘operator’ terminology could be seen as an attempt to make it sound as though there is more to the job than just ‘carrying’ the bits - that they need to somehow ‘operate’ the whole system to make it work well.
Incidentally, Tesco’s MVNO, which is powered by O2’s network could become a hugely-powerful force in the UK, in my opinion. T-Mobile’s MVNO plays have been hugely successful for them in increasing network usage gathering marginal revenue that wouldn’t otherwise have been on the table and combining O2 (currently the UK’s ‘cool’ operator, with the iPhone) with the brand, power and reputation for cost-effectiveness of Tesco could be huge.