How many mobile phones?

We are bombarded with numbers all the time. They are used to inform us and to try to sell us things. But how successful can you be if you endeavor to communicate using lots of zeros?

I have a lot of trouble visualizing or conceptualizing big numbers. For example, I can easily imagine a crowd of 100 or 1000 people. But when I read that the UK population has reached 61 million, I just cannot picture all those faces. The world population is heading for 7 billion, which I find totally impossible to imagine. The same problem occurs with money. I can just about visualize a pile of banknotes representing the value of my house, but the national debt is just lots of digits in a row.

I am not alone in my difficulty. I think most people suffer “number blindness” to some extent. I guess the extreme case is a rumored tribe in South America who have no real concept of numbers. Counting for them is “one”, “two”, “lots”.

I have been trying to get a picture in my mind of lots of mobile phone handsets …

We are very fond of crowing about how Nucleus OS is the most widely used RTOS in the world, having been deployed in billions of devices. Of course, we are just as guilty of blinding people with zeros. So, I started thinking about how I might encapsulate the numbers in meaningful ways.

Last year, about 1 billion mobile handsets were manufactured. About 40% of those utilized Nucleus OS – that is 400 million units. All I need to do is come up with a picture of 400 million phones …

I measured my phone. It is about 4.4 inches [11cm] long; it occupies around 10 square inches [65 square centimetres] on the desk next to me; its volume is about 8 cubic inches [131 cubic centimetres]. I will use that as my “standard” and apply this to the 400 million units. They would occupy 28 million square feet or about 2 million cubic feet. These are still big, inconceivable numbers, but bear with me.

Let’s start with three dimensions. Imagine a Boeing 747 aircraft. They are big – very big. Take the fuselage and remove all the fittings so you end up with a large tube. Pack it carefully with phone handsets. My calculations suggest that your would need 22 747s to contain all 400m units. This is 50% more 747s than Boeing manufactured in 2008.

Prefer two dimensions? Think of a soccer pitch – 130 yards long by 100 yards wide. If we carefully lay out all the phones on the grass, the 400m units would occupy 240 fields.

What about one dimension? Placed end to end, all those phones would neatly wrap around the planet with a little extra capacity to take the scenic route.

I suppose I have some perception of the scale of our business and how many phones deploy Nucleus. But I have some sympathy with that tribe I mentioned. If someone asks me about the number, I think I will just say “lots”.

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