- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

America’s ring tones are fading.

An Opinion Research Corp. survey recently revealed “deepening concerns about the recession already have caused millions of U.S. consumers to cut back on their cell-phone spending and millions more are poised to join their ranks if the economic downturn continues as expected for another six months,” according to the New Millennium Research Council.

That’s a problem for Palm Inc., due to launch their Pre mobile phone anytime soon, and even Apple Inc., which last week announced major upgrades to the iPhone operating software. There’s no price on the Palm Pre just yet, but it surely will cost users a couple of hundred dollars, at least, and require said users to commit to Sprint Nextel for 24 months or longer. The iPhone can run you $299 and AT&T Wireless requires a similar commitment. These phones are not for the phobic.

According to the council, which sponsored the study, the new “survey will show that the resulting shift in consumer habits is likely to come at the expense of contract-based cell-phone service as more consumers seek to save money by using prepaid cell phones and cutting out cell-phone ‘extras.’”

Indeed, if the images of 1930s-style soup lines return to today’s streets and if Kate Perry does a cover version of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” I suppose it’s possible that massive drop-offs in cell subscriptions could happen. But there’s compelling evidence on the other side that many of us will keep our cell plans, come you-know-what or high water.

For one thing, many of us are going “wireless only,” according to a March 13 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks the number of land-line phones to aid in their surveys of disease outbreaks.

According to the CDC, “wireless-only households made up 14.7 percent of U.S. households in 2007,” and “wireless-only adults made up 13.6 percent of U.S. adults” the same year. Oklahoma leads the country with 26.2 percent of adults in wireless-only households; the District boasts about one in four adults, 25.4 percent, in that category.

If all of those subscribers were to shift plans overnight, the cellular industry could easily collapse, I’d imagine: Companies need a solid base of subscribers they can count on month to month for revenue. Moreover, many of those customers need and want the services such plans provide, including unlimited calling options.

Then consider the features Apple is planning for the iPhone 3.0 software release, due out this summer and free to current iPhone users: according to Apple, there will be “over 100 new features including cut, copy and paste which can be done within or across applications; MMS to send and receive photos, contacts, audio files and locations with the Messages app[lication]; and the ability to capture and send audio recordings on the go with the new Voice Memo app. Landscape view will be available for Mail, Text and Notes. Search capabilities will be expanded, allowing customers to search within Mail, iPod and Notes or search across all key apps by typing a key word or phrase into the new Spotlight search, conveniently accessed from the Home screen.”

iPhone 3.0 will “fix” many of the deficiencies iPhone aficionados have noted since the devices bowed two years ago. But wait, there’s more, Apple says: an “updated Stock [application] will add the ability to display recent company news and current trading information [such as] opening or average price, trading volume or Market Cap, and will offer a landscape view to see a full screen of any stock chart.

Customers will also be able to view shared calendars right on their iPhone … and sync their calendars with iCal®, Yahoo, Google and Oracle.” In short, there’s plenty to keep folks tethered to more costly cell phones. You can argue that the iPhone can be hacked to disconnect it from AT&T-only compatibility, with users inserting a pay-as-you-go SIM card and switching networks while retaining most features. But the majority of us won’t be that adventurous, I think.

What’s your opinion? E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.