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10 Billion Tiny Screens Can Change the World

Get ready for a brave new world where supercomputing mobile devices are so ubiquitous that they lead to entirely new business models in industries ranging from healthcare to education. Cisco predicts that, by the year 2016, there will be more mobile-connected devices in the world than humans. That’s 10 billion smart phones, relentlessly cranking out mobile data at an accelerating pace. According to Cisco’s Global Mobile Data Forecast Update 2011-2016, the amount of mobile data created worldwide has doubled in each of the past four years, and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. In the process, Internet consumption habits are also evolving, as we adapt to the new computing capabilities of our tiny screens.

There are several big macro-trends in mobile behavior that have the potential to reshape the global Internet. The transition from the desktop to the mobile Web will be driven to a large extent by the youth-oriented cultures in the Third World – places like the Middle East and Africa – which already boast mobile growth rates far eclipsing the rates in Asia or the West. As mobile devices become even more powerful and capable of handling more data, mobile usage will increasingly transition to high bandwidth activities, like video. Finally, Cisco predicts that tens of millions of these smart phones will be automatically communicating with each other, without the need for human intervention. (The easiest way to envision this is to think of your smart phone transmitting data to your physician while you sleep.)

These changes, taken together, mean that the most successful mobile-first companies of the next decade will hardly resemble the desktop Internet companies of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 booms. Not only will they be offering a different experience, they will be relentlessly focused on the Rising Billion in neglected parts of the world. Just as the has-beens of the brick-and-mortar world were left blindsided by the rise of the Web and everything from e-commerce to social media to social networking, the current cohort of Internet giants – Google and Facebook – may be blindsided by the coming mobile boom. At Facebook, nearly one-half of its 800 million global users access the social network via mobile, yet very few people think of Facebook as a “mobile” company. In fact, Tim Carmody of WIRED recently referred to Facebook as the “last great company of the desktop age.”

Amazing things can happen when your mobile phone becomes a supercomputer. Yep, that’s right, within a few years, the average mobile phone user in Africa will have more computing power at his or her fingertips than NASA scientists did 15 years ago. As Peter Diamandis suggests in his new book Abundance, this will lead to mobile-native companies overtaking their desktop-native competitors, leading to breakthroughs in everything from healthcare to education to financial services. These are all multi-billion-dollar industries where the entry costs have always been extremely high. Mobile devices – by virtue of their smaller size, lower cost and ease of use – help to democratize innovation to everyone within a mobile network.

The changes are so disruptive precisely because they are taking place on the edge. Indeed, the world’s “edge” – Africa – is emerging as a leading innovator in everything from healthcare to financial services. The mobile success stories from Africa are becoming so ubiquitous, in fact, that it’s becoming fashionable to refer to mobile developments in the “first world” as being “third world” in nature. In its look at seven social transformations unleashed by mobile, MIT Technology Review specifically focused on how many of these changes were bubbling up from the edges.

In the U.S. market, there are early signs of companies that were conceived with nothing more than the mobile web and smart phones in mind – companies like Instagram, Path and Foursquare that seem only to exist only as apps on your mobile devices. Get ready for more of the same, but this time, from giants in financial services, education and healthcare. The tiny screen experience will be jarring at times because, as a species, we are hard-wired evolutionarily to think of bigger as better. Our cities are getting bigger, our companies are getting bigger and even humans are getting bigger – but our screens are getting tinier. Yet, make no mistake about it, ten billion tiny screens all connected to the Internet in places like Kenya, Afghanistan and Tanzania can change the world.

image: Young woman holding a tablet and communicating around the world / Shutterstock


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