If any gadget has defined the world we live in more than any other in recent years, it's the mobile phone. Introduced in their current form barely more than a decade ago, these miniature hi-tech marvels have proved so simple, so convenient and (lately at any rate) so affordable that nearly three-quarters of Britons now have one - and 200 million Chinese.
That's one of the fastest sustained growth rates in technological history, and means that even people who think that colour TV was the last modern wonder worth mentioning now wander down the high street chatting to their mates on a pay-as-you-go Nokia. Proof that mobiles have arrived came late last year: they won a place in the statute books, thanks to a new law banning the use of handhelds while driving. That didn't happen to digital watches.
Of course, all the handsets in the world wouldn't be any use without mobile networks for them to work on. Add in the fact that third-generation (3G) services - pioneered by 3 last year - should be rolled out in 2004 by other big UK operators and it's high time that the mobile phone business came under the MT Survey of Surveys microscope.
Looking at the six main network providers in the UK, it's nearly a tie for first place with Vodafone - the company that launched the UK's first commercial GSM digital mobile service in 1991 - first among equals, but only by the slimmest margin. Orange, founded by Hutchison in '94 but now owned by France Telecom, is snapping at its heels, lagging only fractionally on all three measures - subscriber numbers, revenues and market share.
However, Vodaphone can boast the highest monthly usage - 159 minutes per subscriber to Orange's 138 mins and T-Mobile's 117 mins.
Interestingly, both leaders lost market share last year, with Orange down 0.4% to Vodafone's 1.1%, proving that in what is now a fairly mature marketplace, those at the top have most to lose. The fight to win business customers is now in full swing, with the top four operators vying for a chunk of this big-spending sector. Vodafone is tight-lipped about its success in the business market, but Orange claims 1.2 million business users in the UK, delivering 20% of its total revenues. So the hard-nosed businessman ads of recent months did some good, despite attracting widespread damnation, not least from former Orange boss Hans Snook.
Across the whole UK market, the lesson that having lots of customers is a Good Thing only if they are all spending plenty of money seems to have been learned, with projected average revenues per user for 2004 up to Eu33.0 per month from Eu30.7 per month in '02.
Beyond our shores, though, it's nothing like so close. Vodafone dominates in Europe, with nearly twice as many subscribers as Orange. The future that we were told would be Orange has turned a shade darker. CEO Arun Sarin - who last year replaced the legendary corporate raider Peter Gent, architect of Vodafone's £112 billion takeover of Mannesman in 2000 - is confident that there is more to come.
He recently predicted double-digit organic growth for the current financial year and 'high single-digit' growth the year after. Neither is he disheartened by mobile penetration rates of 80% and above in many of his markets. Future growth will come, he says, partly from selling several accounts (Sim cards) to each customer and partly from data and information products derived from the successful Vodafone Live! mobile internet service. Sarin owned up to having three Sims himself (one in his phone, one in his Blackberry e-mailer and one in his PC). To realise those growth targets, he'll need to convince a lot of people that this is a good idea.
In the handset market, the situation seems more clear-cut. Our poll of network providers in the UK shows that Nokia phones are the business users' favourite on Orange, Vodafone and O2. And Charles Dunstone, chief executive of the Carphone Warehouse, is on record as saying that Nokia attracts far and away the strongest brand loyalty of any manufacturer. But the figures make uncomfortable reading: although the Finnish mobile pioneer remains well ahead, with 42.1% of total sales in third-quarter '03, it lost nearly 10% market share compared with the same period in '02.
Nokia has also raised eyebrows in the industry by shunning video call technology for 2004. Video calling is widely tipped by mobile pundits as the killer app of the new 3G services, and at least three of the big four UK networks will launch a service this year. If video calling takes off, the fact that Nokia's flagship 3G phone, the 7600, is designed primarily to provide a better mobile internet experience and can't handle video calls may lose it business in the short run.
Biggest gainers among Nokia's rivals were Siemens, up from 9.5% to 17%, and Sony Ericsson, which picked up 2.6% to gain a 6.6% overall share.
The success of the T610 model over Christmas - so popular that many stores sold out - should make this a vintage year for the Japanese/Swedish partnership.
HOW THE UK MARKET STACKS UP
Subscribers '03 revenues % market Mkt share
share gain/loss 2003 since '02
Vodafone 13.3m Eu5.75bn 25.2 -1.1%
Orange 13.2m Eu5.39bn 25.1 -0.4%
T-Mobile 11.9m Eu3.99bn 22.6 +0.5%
02 11.7m Eu4.17bn 22.2 0%
Virgin 2.5m Eu54.00m 4.7 +0.7%
3 0.1m Eu60.00m 0.2 -
SOURCE: WIRELESS WORLD FORUM
MOBILE GROWTH IN EUROPE
2003 2006 (est)
subscribers penetration subcribers penetration
Finland 4.15 m 80% 4.19m 80%
Portugal 7.93m 78% 8.15m 80%
Italy 43.89m 76% 46.11m 79%
Netherlands 12.07m 74% 13.06m 79%
UK 42.15m 70% 47.02m 77%
Czechoslovakia 4.95m 68% 5.57m 77%
Spain 25.48m 64% 29.75m 75%
France 36.20m 61% 43.91m 73%
SOURCE: FORRESTER RESEARCH
FAVOURITE HANDSETS FOR UK BUSINESS USERS
VODAFONE Nokia 3310
ORANGE Nokia 6310i
O2 Nokia 3410
SOURCE: INDIVIDUAL NETWORK PROVIDERS