How Smartphones Can Be Disruptive as The Next 2 Billion People Who Come Online

One of the more interesting panel discussions at this past CES was about disruptive technologies over the next 5 years. The panelists tossed around things they thought would be disruptive, things like robotics, self driving cars, sensors, wearables, home automation and a few other ideas. My son Ben Bajarin was on the panel and, when he was asked at the end what he thought would be the most disruptive technology over the next five years, he stated it would the fact that, over this time, another two billion users would come online via pocket computers and its overall impact worldwide would be quite disruptive. Co-panelist Avi Greengart of Current Analysis echoed that and said the most disruptive technology is already here in the form of the smartphone.

His comments are based on research we have been doing at Creative Strategies as we try and forecast the longer range demand for smartphones. The industry will sell over 2.4 billon cell phones in 2015 and at least 1.7 billion will be smartphones. However, the move towards making smartphones at the price of featurephones suggests that, by 2017, almost all phones sold will be smartphones. At the same time, wireless infrastructure is being added to most countries around the world and that is laying the groundwork for more and more people to get online. If they get their hands on low cost smartphones, it could have major political, economic and educational ramifications I don’t think any of us fully realize at this point in time.


Ben pointed out that, if we thought the Arab Spring, which was assisted and empowered to a degree by smartphones and social media, imagine when people in Africa, South America and other regions of the world that live in oppressive countries go online and get access to information, video, and social media and can connect with each other, how that would impact their future. He also mentioned that pocket computers could have a major impact on their ability to do commerce, trade, manage their crops or tiny businesses and potentially impact their earning ability.

Ben recently wrote a more detailed piece on this subject in which he points out one of the more interesting things about bringing the next two billion people online is the fact that perhaps today’s smartphone operating systems won’t even appeal to them. Many will be illiterate and today’s mobile operating systems may be to difficult for some to use. He also shared some important numbers about Android and IOS’ current market share and the potential schism within Android about to hit Google. Worth a read if you have the time.

Another way to think of this is the smartphones or pocket computers that go to the next two billion people is kind of like what the Gutenberg Bible was to the masses in the Middle Ages. Before the Gutenberg press, knowledge and control of the people was in the hands of a select few who controlled the flow of information and, as a result, they lorded it over them and made them beholden to the church or the higher educated authorities who ruled them. But once the Bible and other documents could be dispersed to a larger audience, those authoritarian rulers were challenged and eventually marginalized and more and more power went to the people over time.

In this day and age, it is hard to believe this kind of controlled ruling still exists but all one has to do is look at North Korea as a modern day example. This hermit kingdom keeps knowledge from the people and has authority over them in oppressive ways and has fooled people into thinking their leaders are gods. Now imagine what would happen if hundreds of thousands of people there get a smartphone and could have broad access to information. In some countries where people cannot even read, the information would flow through video and even soap operas showing a narrative of the outside world.

In fact, technology was at the heart of the break up of the Soviet Union. I went to Moscow to protest the lack of religious freedom in 1973 with a group of people and we were arrested and kept completely away from the Russian people so as to not give them access to any outside information. We were eventually expelled and our protest was blocked from any of their news media. But about 12 years later, I was in Hanover, Germany at Cebit and met with a clandestine group who was smuggling fax machines in to Russia and using them as a way to get outside information to the Russian people. Interestingly, I had the privilege of meeting Michail Gorbachev 3 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and he said in that meeting it was the fax machine and technology that broke open the flow of information and played an important part in breaking down the walls that kept people under a repressed form of goverment.

While I have no doubt that robotics, self driving cars, wearables, etc., will have a disruptive impact on many of us, I think Ben is on to something when he suggests the most disruptive thing technology may deliver in the next 5-10 years will be in the way of making it possible for another two billion people to get on the internet and how it would impact their lives in terms of politics, commerce and education and, hopefully, give them more freedom.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

18 thoughts on “How Smartphones Can Be Disruptive as The Next 2 Billion People Who Come Online”

  1. The question is: is it doing any of that for the people that do have access to connected, in-pocket computing ? Has the social, political, educationnal situation in the US (or in other mobile-heavy countries) be getting any better over the last decade ?

    1. I think the effect is much less in a first world country than it is in third world countries, since they’re starting from a lower base.

      1. I would on the contrary expect that having the basics (a democratic government, basic healthcare, public schools…) would allow to leverage whatever changes Mobile is supposed to magic upon us.
        I know Mobile invented revolutions, but still… Mobile not having had any effect here doesn’t seem to indicate it should have more over there.

        1. I was in Cambodia about 15 years ago running a reserch project on radio usage, most of what I found out was a waste of time because the questions i was asking wernt relevant, the clients decided what they wanted to know.

          The thing I noticed was the difference the first mobile phone made to EVERY village, now these were peasant farming villages, most wouldn’t have a lightbulb per hovel and you could forget paved roads or mains-anything. #1 thing they all wanted was a Mobil phone because access to one doubled-trippeled the average farmers income within a year just through better price information, it reduced crime by allowing villages to communicate and I met people who’s lives were literally saved by being able to get access to simple medicine faster.

          In relative terms the ability to smartphones, like dumb phones before is going to have a massively bigger effect to the lives of the world poor than the rich. I’d also add that I think it will massively increase literacy rates because the information available will just be too valuable not to learn how to read. Most of the people who can’t read, can’t read not because they are stupid but because the cost/benefit dosn’t appear attractive, smartphones will change that.

          1. This! This is the REAL opportunity!! The real opportunity in the best sense of humanity not merely in the pedantic dollar-driven sense. How do we amplify this? I believe there is a real hunger for among many folks to help this transformation come about…

          2. Really good comments. I may use this story, if you don’t mind or contact you to elaborate more as I”d like to highlight this example. These are exactly the kinds of things I am interested, and seeing as well from our field research in more rural / village countries.

            Facebook’s released this interesting report on the state of global connectivity. They highlighted a couple of case stories that echo yours. It was a good read.


          3. Great comment.

            This is what matters. This is what information is about. This is what literacy is about.

            I think Benedict Evans once tweeted that smartphones were giving the US citizens a great geography lesson. I truly appreciate the one that Joe90, you gave me here. It’s a lesson in geography, human history, and how we got to be here.

          4. From BBC and other websites in 2013:

            Nigerian Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina has been named Forbes African of the Year for his reforms to the country’s farming sector.

            In January, Mr Adesina announced a scheme to hand out 10 million mobile phones to farmers to “drive an agriculture revolution” so they can find out the latest market information.The phones are also used to get vouchers for seeds and fertiliser.

            With the success of the electronic wallet system, Nigeria has become the first country in Africa to reach farmers with subsidized farm inputs through their mobile phones. The impact is already being noticed beyond Nigeria with several African countries, Brazil, India and China now expressing interest in adopting the electronic wallet system in their agriculture sectors

      2. How does have a ‘pocket computer’ help me get clean water to drink, if I can’t already do that?
        How does a ‘pocket computer’ help me get sufficient food to feed myself, my wife, and my children, if I can’t already do that?

        1. You could order clean water off Amazon, and maybe get a date off Tinder(*), with the other party paying ?
          (*) or Grindr, we don’t want to be close-minded.

  2. “Before the Gutenberg press, knowledge and control of the people was in the hands of a select few who controlled the flow of information and, as a result, they lorded it over them and made them beholden to the church or the higher educated authorities who ruled them. But once the Bible and other documents could be dispersed to a larger audience, those authoritarian rulers were challenged and eventually marginalized and more and more power went to the people over time.”
    Forgive the long paste job, but I wholly agree with this paragraph. A very important part of billions of lives cannot be in the hands of select few when it comes to content. Currently only a small handful of people have the ability to squash a book or a program. Has it always been so historically? Perhaps in intent, but never in such effectiveness.
    Imagine Guttenberg deciding what gets to be printed…

  3. I’m proposing, as a thought experiment, a set of small changes to the original text above because these changes were so concretely evident to me even as I was first reading the original text…. “….Before the [X] money was in the hands of a select few who controlled the flow of it and, as a result, they lorded it over the people and made them beholden to the banks, lending institutions, and taxing authorities who ruled them. But once [x] could be dispersed to and understood by a larger audience, those greedy, selfish, and short-sighted rulers were challenged and eventually marginalized as more and more of the money, opportunity, and fairness went to all the people over time. [Eventually the lottery of poverty (by lottery of birth) was overcome and a form of equality took hold that utterly transformed the species.]

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