Whatever they were doing, it was causing a lot of excitement. The younger sister launched herself forward from one of the long metal bench seats lining the airport waiting area. Her phone, an iPhone 4S, was held in front of her face like a viewfinder. She bounded across the five foot gap to where her older sister sat on the opposite bench, both hands gripped tightly around her chunky blue plastic phone case, shaped like a teddy bear, complete with protruding ears.
The older girl also had an iPhone, the 6 Plus, in a lighter, more stylish plastic case. I found myself wondering whether the iPhone 4S originally belonged to her and had been handed down to her younger sibling when she outgrew the bear ears and the little three and a half inch screen?
One of the virtues of Apple’s end-to-end control of its ecosystem and comparatively small model line-up is that its devices tend to enjoy longer lifespans, kept fresh with timely software updates. Nearly 4 years after release, the 4S is still able to run the latest version of iOS. As such, iPhones are more likely than other brands to be passed on to family members deemed not yet old enough, or who don’t care enough, for the latest technology.
The youngest girl stopped inches from her sister’s face, both of them squealing with amusement as they beheld extreme close-ups of each others faces, their individual features massively amplified by physical proximity and the extra boost of the iPhone’s digital camera zoom. It was like some kind of bizarre, futuristic gunfight in which the protagonists holding their iPhones like weapons and the outcome is determined by whoever can snap the weirdest photo of the other.
The mother, who remained seated, smiled quietly from behind her own phone screen, but was too engrossed in whatever was on her own digital display – a Samsung Galaxy Note in a white leather case – to take much notice.
Although focused around digital devices, there was something intriguingly disconnected about the girls’ antics. They were, of course, employing the cameras and processors of their smartphones, but the outcome of their creativity was shared entirely within their common physical space, with no need to upload anything to the cloud. They simply showed each other the photos in the gallery app of their phones, swiping quickly through them, deleting them as they went, and saving the best (or, in some cases, worst!) for later amusement.
The popularity of cloud messaging services, from the scale of WhatsApp to the vanishing, temporary communications of Snapchat, has become such an industry talking point that it is easy to forget cloud messaging is not an end in itself, but rather an expression of an older desire to create and share identity. For the present, cloud messaging is undoubtedly where much of that activity is happening for children and young adults, but it will not continue in the same way forever. Just as Facebook Messenger supplanted SMS, cloud messaging as we know it today will itself will eventually be old news.
It is also interesting to consider the commercial implications of activities such as these, which do not rely on a network connection, yet count as rich, engaging digital moments for the user. The mobile industry has historically generated the largest single chunk of its revenue at the point of connection. From the role of network subsidies in hardware purchases to the general acceptance that network requests such as calls and data connections are the most acceptable moment to bill the consumer, connectivity has been the driver of digital industry. To this day, despite the greater press interest accorded to device manufacturers, network revenues continue to outweigh those from the sale of hardware by some margin.
When two sisters can entertain themselves, offline, using nothing more than the cameras of their iPhones and the built-in gallery app, who stands to benefit? Apple is the obvious beneficiary in this specific scenario, with the children sub-consciously building a closer relationship with their iPhones. It is hard to imagine them buying from anyone other than Apple when the time comes to upgrade the hand-me-down bear phone to something newer.
However, it also makes me think about which companies really understand the ingredients of great hybrid physical and digital user experiences, particularly with those with strong gaming pedigrees: the Segas and Nintendos of this world. In a world where parental approval of digital technology is implicitly linked to activities which take place closer to the safe, supervised physical real world than the unknown frontiers of the ethereal digital sphere, companies which understand this nuance may thrive.