Talk is cheap—accessories are optional

‘80s babies with cell phones demand plenty in the way of bells and whistles

Rows of cell phone faceplates in an array of colors and designs attract youths looking to make a statement about individualism.

Rows of cell phone faceplates in an array of colors and designs attract youths looking to make a statement about individualism.

Photo By David Robert

Nyki Chapell is lost without her cell phone. Chapell, a 22-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Reno, carries a Nokia with a silver and blue faceplate. She says her phone’s colors show school spirit.

Chapell lives between her sorority house and her parents’ house in Sun Valley, so her cell is the only way that friends and family can reach her.

“I feel naked without my phone,” she says. “If I lost it, I would be lost and wouldn’t know anyone’s numbers. It’s like leaving a child at home—you just don’t do it.”

I sit next to Chapell as she drives her blue Dodge Neon to her sorority house near campus. While we are on our way, the phone rings at least three times, playing the Rocky theme song for each person trying to reach Chapell.

Cell phones like Chapell’s aren’t just popular these days. To many, the gadgets have become indispensable. In 1994, 16 million people were using cell phones. Last year, the number of users skyrocketed to 110 million, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. It’s predicted that there will be 1.2 billion users worldwide by the year 2005.

So now that everybody’s got one, the all-important question arises: How do you express your individuality? That’s simple. Dozens, if not hundreds, of creative ring tones, designer faceplates and decorative cases are appearing in stores everywhere.

One of the newer trends in cell phones is personal ring tones. Some phones even allow a different ring for each caller. You might choose to warn yourself that an incoming call is coming from your mother-in-law with, say, a Wicked Witch of the West tune from The Wizard of Oz. Or wait—it’s the hot guy you met Friday night, and your phone’s playing Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.”

“I downloaded the Rocky song when it was boxing season,” Chapell tells me between calls. “And I love that sport, but I should probably get a new tone soon.”

Chapell selected her tone on her phone service’s Web site. By entering a phone number and paying a dollar per tone, you can hear your favorite song whenever you receive a phone call. Most phones are bought with nearly 25 standard ring tones, but the Web sites allow users to choose from many more tunes—from Cher to Beethoven to Papa Roach. Chapell selected “Hawaii 5-0” because of her Hawaiian heritage. She also has Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on her cell.

Rows and rows of cell phone faceplates in assorted designs and colors attract young users to The Phone Store, located in the middle of a busy aisle near the Food Court at Meadowood Mall. At a nearby store, Hot Topic, you can purchase so-called “alternative” faceplates decorated with glitter, black-and-white stars, half-naked women or the Care Bears cartoon characters, complete with pastel rainbows.

My own faceplate, which my parents found at Wal-Mart, is pink and red with glitter blasted all over the front. They said it seemed to fit my personality.

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Phone Store saleswoman Christy Hubbard says her best sellers are Hawaiian flowers and flames. The store offers camouflage cell phone carriers and number plates that glow in the dark. You can also purchase cell phone jewels, small rhinestones that stick to the faceplate.

“Everyone wants to be different, so we keep a lot of stuff in stock,” Hubbard says.

Many cell phone accessories fit over the screen of the phone—a patriotic bald eagle, for example, or a lizard’s eye. There are also screens in various colors and a component that puts all the figures on the screen in 3-D.

Also available to consumers: flashing batteries for Nokia phones, belt clips and hands-free gear that makes it safer to talk while driving, as well as game attachments that serve as a joystick so you don’t have to press small numbers to play games like Nokia’s “Snake.”

Within the next couple of months, most cell phone companies will be putting out new product lines. Hubbard says that this means lighter phones, more ring tones, better games and more user-friendly models like those found in high-tech European countries.

“In Europe, people only use text messaging because air time got to be so expensive,” Hubbard says. “Cell phone companies are trying to get this started in the States.”

Depending on the service, text messages can cost anywhere from 70 cents to free. Some phones can act as an e-mail address, allowing Internet users to send text messages to your phone. Products are already available that will accommodate excessive text messaging, such as the Erikson chat board, an attachment that includes an entire keyboard. And the Motorola V200 Personal Communicator is offered through Verizon Wireless for $199.99 with a two-year contract. This gizmo comes with a speakerphone option, unlimited Internet access and a full keyboard for text messages.

“With every letter placed on the board, it prevents you from having to hit the number two or three different times in order to get the letter ‘C',” Hubbard says.

No matter how innovative the new keyboards may be, most cell phone users agree that nothing can replace the fun of constant chatter. Chapell has 600 daytime minutes and 3,000 night and weekend minutes. She says she uses nearly all of them.

“I use more than my allotted minutes nearly every month, charging sometimes hundreds of dollars to my parents’ cell phone bill,” she says.

It’s this generation, “the ‘80s babies,” who are buying most of these tiny phones and accompanying phone gear. Rachel Bowers, a customer service representative at Cell World, says that most young people can’t fathom that there was a time when parents did not have cell phones. She says cell phones are among those things, like fast food and TV remote controls, that make life easier than it was in previous generations.

“Cell phones are popular because they are convenient and there are a lot of good deals, but people also buy phones for emergency purposes because they provide peace of mind,” Bowers says.

The time is soon approaching, she predicts, when people will no longer need home phones at all.

“Cell phones are so cheap now that you don’t need another phone," Bowers says. "It’s like when CDs replaced tapes."