The Commuter Factor

By | September 10, 2006

Watching the commuters of Beijing and Hong Kong brings home how usage of the cellphone is dictated by circumstance – in this case about how you get to work. This may be something that has been studied at length, but reading discussions about the difference in adoption rates and usage among countries and regions, to me it’s comes down largely to environment, once issues such as income etc are taken into account. Chinese, Singapore, Hong Kongese, Japanese, Korean commuters spend a good portion of their commute in air conditioned buses, trains and subeway cars — the perfect environment for cellphone features such as SMS, browsing, playing games, reading, listening to music and viewing video and TV. They also happen to be young, with some disposable income and keen to adopt whatever technologies define them as trendy and modern. This isn’t the only factor, of course, but it must go a long way to explaining why cellphones there are so prevalent and so advanced.
Of course, there are other issues. It’s not enough to commute by public transport. In places like Indonesia, public transport is a crowded, unpleasant and sometimes dangerous experience, so whisking out a cellphone is more likely to attract a mugger than admiring looks from fellow passengers (even if you can find the space.)
Given all this, why don’t cellphone manufacturers and cellular operators buy stakes in transportation systems to raise the number of people using these forms of transport? In Jakarta, as with Bangok a decade ago, there’s a slow move towards skytrains and other transportation systems aimed at the wooing the middle and lower-middle classes away from their cars. So far the busway system has had only modest success. Part of this is to do with the awful infrastructure surrounding the stations, where commuters have to plough through sewers and potholes to get to their bus. And the buses themselves are rapidly deteriorating, making them targets for pickpockets and muggers. But if companies stopped thinking about these places as modes of transport and instead as captive audiences for content and services, maybe everyone could win. Some Hong Kong buses have rudimentary TV channels aboard their buses, blasting ads in short loops touting weight loss clinics that commuters quickly tire of and ignore . This is an unimaginative approach, and offers only a glimpse of what could be possible. Given the amount of time most commuters spend sitting or standing on transport staring at boring ads I would have thought cellular providers, handset manufacturers and content developers would be buying up bus companies in droves to ensure this market of strap hangers were better exploited.
(aboard CX719)

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