Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What the open-source smart phone will do to the world, according to Newsweek

The mobile revolution may be the biggest wave ever to hit the world of computing, says Newsweek.

Just as mainframes gave way to minicomputers, which in turn gave way to personal computers, the PC now is being displaced by smart phones and tablets. By 2013, a decade after smart phones were launched, there will be 1 billion of them in the world–roughly the number of PCs that exist today, three decades after that machine’s introduction.

These devices will reach into the furthest corners of the world. By next year 5 billion mobile phones will be in service, out of a total world population of about 7 billion, according to Yankee Group, a high-tech research firm. Most of those will be “feature phones” with limited capabilities.

But over the next decade the technologies will become so cheap that virtually every phone sold will be what we, today, would call a smart phone. “This is a battle for literally every person on the planet. That’s why these markets are worth fighting for,” says Carl Howe, a research director at Yankee Group.

Most important, every one of those smart phones will be constantly connected to the Internet. If you own a smart phone, you know how extraordinary that linkage can be. Scott Adams, the author and creator of the comic strip Dilbert, last year argued in an essay that smart phones represent a kind of “exobrain” that augments our regular brain, giving us the ability to store and retrieve mountains of information and to perform tasks like navigating unfamiliar terrain.

So what happens when most of the residents of planet Earth carry a device that gives them instant access to pretty much all of the world’s information? The implications–for politics, for education, for global economics–are dizzying. In theory, the mobile revolution could enable citizens to demand greater openness and accountability from their governments.

The reverse might also be true: governments could more easily spy on citizens. “You also have the prospect of having 5 billion surveillance points,” says Jonathan Zittrain, codirector of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

The proliferation of low-cost handhelds will enable people in developing economies to see the rest of the world–and join it. “I can’t imagine anything since the invention of the spinning jenny that will so profoundly change the lives of people in the deepest rural parts of the emerging market. This is the knowledge revolution coming to them, finally,” says Sanjay Jha, the co-CEO of Motorola.

Jha credits the return to profitability of Motorola’s mobile devices–after three years of losing money–to an early bet on Android-based phones.