tracfone_logo Mobile technology is amazing, isn’t it? Various companies and charitable organizations have made a big deal out of the necessity of getting to a $100 netbook or tablet for third-world educational purposes, and for the sake of domestic poor and homeless who might not otherwise be able to afford their own computer. And we’ve been getting there—though netbooks actually of sufficient quality to be useful are still around $130 in refurbished form.

But another form of mobile technology has fallen to the point that it’s pretty much already at universal affordability: the prepaid cellular phone. As I was reminded last week, anyone can go into any Wal-Mart, plunk down $10, and get a cheap pre-paid TracFone. Another $20 will get two hours of talk time over 90 days.

Considering how much cell phones used to cost, both to buy and to use, it gives one hope that in a few years netbooks and e-book readers will be that cheap, too. And perhaps they will share other similarities with pre-paid phones.

If someone with a $10 pre-paid phone with a lot of pre-paid minutes loses the handset, he can simply buy another $10 phone, log into his account, and get the minutes he’s bought moved over to that phone instead. Perhaps e-book readers will go a similar route, keeping all their books in a personal cloud storage locker (be it a corporate one, like Amazon’s Kindle uses, or something personal like Dropbox or Evernote) so that you can just buy a new one if you leave it on the bus or drop it in the ocean.

Perhaps really cheap single-use e-book readers will be intentionally flimsy things, made mostly out of cardboard (like the disposable cardboard cell phone someone came up with back in the early ‘00s) and meant to be used for a week or two until the battery runs out, then recycled.I realize pre-paid cell technology has been available for several years, and has been used by all sorts of shady types such as drug dealers and terrorists, but I hadn’t really put much thought into it before and I think the implications are amazing for ordinary people.

For the first time, you don’t have to have any other worldly goods to have your very own telephone number and voicemail drop. You could sleep in a homeless shelter every night yet still have a phone number of your own to put on résumés, employment applications, and so on. Combine this with renting a post office box for a mailing address and it’s no longer necessary to have a home to look like you do to prospective employers.

And people who are a bit more materially-inclined can find them useful as well. As I noted a couple of months ago, a lot of people are finding they are actually making a lot fewer phone calls these days because the random interruptive nature of phone conversations is giving way to less jarring instant messaging and social networking.

With that in mind, who needs an expensive smartphone contract where half of what you’re paying for is voice calling you don’t use very much? Better to save your money and get a MiFi instead—you can get unlimited prepaid wireless bandwidth for less than the monthly fee of an ordinary “dumbphone” contract. Even Michael Arrington found there was a lot to like about pre-paid cellular, especially with Google Voice to act as a main-phone-number forwarding source.

There really isn’t any cheaper way to get an “instant second phone number” than this. The gaming convention I’ve been helping run started out with a pre-paid cell phone as its “business line” since it mainly needed to serve as a message drop for people interested in getting in touch. The possibilities are endless.


  1. “Perhaps really cheap single-use e-book readers will be intentionally flimsy things, made mostly out of cardboard (like the disposable cardboard cell phone someone came up with back in the early ‘00s) and meant to be used for a week or two until the battery runs out, then recycled.”

    When reading devices become as omnipotent, prolific and disposable as paper books there will be a certain odd parody. Then we could focus on parody of the works conveyed; will book reading simply migrate from one delivery system to another or will screen reading transform book themselves?

    That future should already be apparent with cell phone reading. There traditional fiction reading has a niche, but a small one. More prevalent reading could be styled as place based reference and situation based learning on the fly. The book as wiki or commonplace repository may actually echo the origins, but not the canonic, of the book format.

  2. I certainly agree about the eBook and have commented to this affect many time in the past. The future of personal comms is incredible all right.
    I never knew you could get a mobile phone for $10 in the US. In the UK and IRE the cheapest mobiles are normally about $60, though you do get a lot of call credit for that – and you get it usually spread over 3 to 5 months. I don’t see Mobiles selling for $10 in Europe anytime soon.

    But I do see eReaders following the same model as mobiles, I agree Chris. Even now, today, there is no reason that Amazon or B&N could not sell their eReaders for $50 along with credits toward book sales.

    I also agree that eReaders will become mass produced in about 5 years time in many different Chinese and Asian countries. They will be ubiquitous, mass produced and cross branded by Publishers, sellers, supermarkets, etc etc. especially those with wifi only.

    On smart phones I see everyone having a smart phone because it will continue to incorporate so many devices in one. Phone, video conf., camera, PA, App access to global data, eReader, eWallet, and many more.

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