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

on March 6, 2015

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.

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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.