Smart thinking?

11 May 2012 | Tim Phillips


A 17-year-old boy’s decision to sell his kidney for an iPhone once again proves that smartphone technology can inspire some rather daft behaviour.

The less-than-encouraging news that a 17-year-old boy, identified only as “Wang”, is suffering from renal deficiency in Chenzhou city, Hunan province, China at the moment, having sold his kidney to buy an iPhone, is a reminder of just how useful it is that breathing is a reflex action. If not, young master Wang would have been dead long ago, and the smartphone data business would have lost a customer.

The surge in demand for smartphones was also good news, albeit temporary, for Hunan’s back-street surgeons. The purchasers of the kidney paid around $35,000.

As operators weep over smartphone-inspired congestion it is hard to imagine that, throughout the early 1990s, carriers were pushing the idea of a smartphone to grab as much attention as they could from the upstart computer business and soak up the enormous amount of spare capacity they were building into their networks.

AT&T was the visionary. It revealed the big-s, big-p ‘SmartPhone’ in 1990, reported by the excited Wall Street Journal as “a phone for receiving advanced telecommunications and information services”, for which “the payoff will be in increased phone traffic, use of special services and orders for AT&T network equipment to provide the service.” But AT&T and others didn’t foresee (or couldn’t build) the essential element of a successful smartphone: it needed to be a mobile device. In the early 1990s a mobile telephone came with its own car attached, and that would cost more than just one kidney.

There was, however, one insightful company that had the idea of a mobile device. In alliance with Rolm, a spin-off of Siemens, it was creating a prototype smartphone that was intended to leave the office. When the idea that an office phone might have a screen instead of buttons seemed a bit odd, this was off the chart.Still, neither this company, nor the emerging mobile network operators, would guess that 20 years later a 17-year-old would be selling his vital organs in return for a more convenient way to gossip with friends.

Rolm’s device partner couldn’t produce a commercial smartphone in 1993, but 15 years later it would create a device that would cause AT&T’s cherished smartphone dream to come true - and create a public relations disaster in the process as users swamped its network capacity.

Back in 1993 the developer of the first mobile smartphone might have given the same advice to AT&T and the unborn Mr Wang: be careful what you wish for. Thanks, Apple.

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk