If a year is a long time in politics (and it is), then it’s an eternity in communications technology. Fourteen years ago, about 400 million people were using the internet. Today, the number of net users is pushing the 3 billion mark. But that’s not the really big news. What’s truly startling is that 2 billion of these folks are getting their internet connections primarily via smartphones, ie, handheld computers that can access the internet as well as make voice calls, send text messages and do the other things that old-fashioned “feature phones” could do.
This is startling because smartphones are a relatively new development, and when they first appeared less than a decade ago, most of us thought that they would remain an elite consumer product for a long time to come, staples of affluent professionals in the industrialised world, perhaps, but of no relevance to poor people in the developing world who would continue to be delighted with crude feature phones that could just about do SMS.
How wrong can you be? We underestimated both the power of Moore’s law and human nature. Gordon Moore’s “law” postulated that computing power – crudely measured as the number of transistors that can be fitted on to a processor chip – doubles every 18 months. That doubling has been going on for nearly 30 years and it helps to explain how Apple’s new iPhone 6 fits 625 times as many transistors on its CPU chip as the Intel Pentium chip had when it was powering a 1995 desktop PC. And much the same holds for the processors in the smartphones manufactured by Samsung et al. What this means is that “everyone gets a pocket supercomputer”.
The quotation comes from a riveting presentation given last week by Benedict Evans, a Brit who is now a partner in Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s noisier (and possibly more successful) venture capital firms. Mr Evans bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Harry Potter, which makes it hard to believe that he has been a perceptive observer of the tech industry for the past 15 years or so. But this may just be a manifestation of the well-known tendency of policemen to appear younger with every passing of a columnist’s year.
The message of his presentation is that it no longer makes any sense to draw a distinction between the future of networking technology and the future of mobile devices. Once upon a time, only geeks and early adopters had powerful computers. The advent of the smartphone means that now everyone has one. And when that happens, technology ceases to be “technology” and becomes, effectively, invisible, like electricity and running water in the developed world. “When tech is fully adopted,” says Mr Evans, “it disappears.” He backs it up with slides showing how references to “railways” in printed books peaked in 1920, “steel” peaked in 1945 and “computerisation” in 1990. In 10 years’ time, the word “smartphone” will be greeted by blank looks from most people under the age of 25.
It’s difficult to overstate the implications of this change. Mr Evans points out, for example, that internet users already spend more time in mobile apps than they do on the web. This is partly because, in general, smartphones are far more sophisticated devices than PCs, but largely because they are always nearby and always on. This means that the mobile advertising business is where the commercial action is going to be. Just one illustration: mobile ads have doubled Facebook’s revenue, now running at .5bn annually, in just two years.
Similarly, the smartphone business overtook the PC industry in 2012 and now dwarfs it for the simple reason that people change their phones much more rapidly (every two years) than they upgrade their PCs (every five years). Smartphone and tablet sales now account for nearly half of the entire consumer electronics industry. More Apple and Android phones have now been sold, for example, than all the Japanese cameras ever made. Microsoft’s share of personal computing device sales has declined from 90% in 2009 to about 20% now. And Apple (which is a minority player, remember, in the smartphone business) now makes almost as much revenue from iPhone sales as the entire PC industry does from making desktop and laptop computers. Computing devices used for watching video now far outnumber actual “televisions”. And so on and so on.
What this means is that the contours of our emerging networked future are now beginning to emerge from the fog of hype, patent litigation and “informed bewilderment” that obscures our view of computing and networking technology. What we’re witnessing is the fusion of the internet with mobile telephony. All we now have to do is to figure out what that means for our grandchildren. The good news is that young Evans will probably still be around to give them advice.
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