A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 18, 2013

Mobility, Growth and the Access to Affluence

We know mobile dominates the present and will only consolidate that position in the future. The statistics are daunting: essentially more of everything is now being done by mobile device than by computer - laptop and desktop combined.

The degree to which companies are succeeding or failing - from Intel's CEO taking early retirement to Apple and Samsung battling it out for global preeminence to Microsoft trying to figure out how to get back in the game - all hinge on the degree to which they have positioned themselves to bend mobile to their will - and their future profits.

There is, however, another aspect to the equation that has gotten less attention but that may offer the prospects for future growth in macro terms as well as tech. And that is the degree to which the mobile phone has become the economic lifeline for those too poor or disconnected from reliable services to take advantage of computers in the traditional sense.

Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's MediaLab devoted years to developing an inexpensive 'world computer' that, for a few dollars, would provide internet access using inexpensive components and solar or 'free' sources of power. It never quite caught on, both because those already in the business werent so sure how they felt about sponsoring their competition and because distribution through corrupt or merely inefficient emerging governments was just too hard. But it turns out he neednt have worried. The mobile device is providing that access and possibly in a way that makes more practical sense than did a small, green, solar-battery-powered, plastic laptop.

The implication is that by making access available to the internet, the mobile device is making access to affluence possible in ways that may stimulate demand in places where it never seemed economically feasible. The potential impact on commerce, on wealth accretion, on life style and life expectancy may help drive the global economy back towards prosperity. Humans' inclination and ability to communicate with one another, as basic an instinct as walking upright and the opposable thumb, could be the key to the next economic cycle. And we will all be the beneficiaries if it happens. JL

Andrew Leonard comments in Salon:
Some eye-popping statistics from the digital marketing agency Walker Sands underscore the rationale for my end-of-year piece, “The Year Everything Went Mobile.”

According to Walker Sands 23 percent of total global website visits came from mobile devices in December of 2012. That’s up from 17 percent in the third quarter and 6 percent in January 2011 If we can believe these numbers (other reports show mobile devices with a somewhat smaller slice of global Web traffic), the data further reinforces just how dramatic the shift in how we all connect to the networked world is. We aren’t witnessing incremental change. This is a tidal wave.

It’s no wonder that we learned today that holiday PC sales fell for the first time in five years, further reinforcing the implosion of the now ancient desktop/laptop regime. But there’s something a little deeper going on here than just a sectoral swing in what gadgets we use to log on.

None other than Bill Clinton hinted at one of the underlying forces driving these tectonic changes, in his keynote speech Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show. “Mobile technology is doing so much now to lift the poor,” he said, noting that in many impoverished countries, smartphones are by far the cheapest alternative for gaining access to the Internet and all that now comes with it — banking services, communications, social media, et cetera.

As far as the “digital divide” is concerned, the smartphone is something of a unique product in the history of personal technology. It simultaneously represents the cutting edge of the technology business — the most computing power packed in the smallest box — and it is the obvious choice for members of any economic class to adopt as the most ounce-for-ounce efficient and economic answer to how to get connected in an era where connectivity is — after food, water and shelter — an almost universal top priority.

The potential implications are fascinating. Can class inequities be ameliorated if everyone has a cheap computer in their pocket? What about imbalances in political power? The answers to these questions are unclear, but the numbers require that we ask them.


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