One of the more interesting panel discussions at CES was about disruptive technologies over the next five years. The panelists tossed around ideas they thought would be disruptive over this period — robotics, self driving cars, sensors, wearables, home automation and a few others. Creative Strategies Partner and Tech.pinions co-founder Ben Bajarin was on the panel and was asked at the end what he thought would be the most disruptive technology he saw on the horizon. He stated it would be the fact that more people will come online for the first time over the next five years than have in the past 30 years. The global implications of adding another two billion Internet users could be quite disruptive. Panelist Avi Greengart of Current Analysis echoed that and said the most disruptive technology is already here in the form of the smart phone.
Ben’s comments are based on research we have been doing at Creative Strategies as we try and forecast the longer range demand for smart phones and the market for the next two billion. Over two billon cell phones will be sold in 2015 and ~1.5 billion will be smart phones. However, the move towards making smart phones at the price of features phones suggests that, by 2017, almost all phones sold will be smart phones. 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 go online. If they get their hands on low cost smart phones it could have major political, economic and educational ramifications I don’t think any of us fully realize.
Ben pointed out if we thought the Arab Spring (which happened mainly because of smart phones and social media) was big, imagine when people in Africa, South America, North Korea and other regions of the world that live in oppressive countries go online and get access to information, video, social media and connect with each other. How will that would impact their future? He also mentioned pocket computers could have a major impact on people’s ability to do commerce, trade, manage their crops or businesses and potentially impact their earning ability.
Another way to think of this is that smart phones or pocket computers connecting the next two billion people to the internet is similar to what the Gutenberg Press and the Bible were 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. As a result, they lorded it over the populace and made them beholden to the church or more 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 as 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 to North Korea as a modern day example. This hermit kingdom keeps knowledge from the people and lords their authority over them in oppressive ways and has fooled the people into thinking their leaders are gods. Imagine what would happen if hundreds of thousands of North Koreans get a smart phone and have broad access to information. In some countries where people cannot even read, the info would flow through video and even soap operas showing a narrative of the outside world.
Interestingly, 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 Russians 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. Twelve years later, I was in Hanover, Germany at CEBIT and met with a clandestine group smuggling fax machines in to Russia and using them as a way to get outside information to the average Russian people. Interestingly, I had the privilege of meeting Michail Gorbachov five years after the break up 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 government.
While I have no doubt 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 five to ten years will be making it possible for another two billion people to get on the internet and how it will impact their lives in terms of politics, commerce, and education.
For more detail on this trend, download our report on the next phase of mobile.