In parallel with the rise of the social Web, advances in mobile technology have begun to fundamentally transform computing as we know it. In fact, mobile computers – including smartphones, GPS wristwatches and tablets – are quickly replacing desktop computing and spreading faster than any other consumer technology in history. Smartphones already outsell PCs, while touchscreens outnumber keyboards. In emerging economies like India, mobile Internet traffic now exceeds desktop traffic thanks to its status as the second largest mobile phone user base in the world. Meanwhile, enormous increases in wireless data bandwidth have made a wide range of mobile end-points for applications possible, and this will continue.
According to the ITU, the number of mobile subscriptions globally reached 6.8 billion in May 2013, a penetration rate of 96%. By 2016, there will be over 10 billion mobile devices, which means more connected devices than humans. While mobile devices are not evenly distributed, some 80-90% of the populations of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa currently own one; and thanks to growing availability of telecottages in rural Africa, 97% of Tanzanians report that they can rent access to a mobile phone when they need to. Comparatively speaking, smartphones are still in the early stages of deployment. But with 1.5 billion smartphone users already, a 30% annual growth rate, and considerable improvement in affordability on the way, it won’t be long before all mobile handsets are smartphones to some degree.
Mobile computing represents more than a simple shift in access devices from PCs to handsets and tablets. Mobility changes our patterns of connectivity, keeping us permanently connected to people, processes and places. It transforms the way we interact with information, with location-based services and augmented reality providing richer interfaces between the physical and digital worlds. And it vastly increases the capabilities at our fingertips, allowing users to do anything a desktop computer can do and much more. Indeed, with leading providers like Apple and Google offering close to a million third party apps, there are practically infinite possibilities to the extend a typical smartphone’s range of functions.
With respect to economic growth and entrepreneurship, one of the most important factors is the speed at which the mobile revolution is breaking down barriers to access and making the online population much more representative of the global population as a whole. A decade ago, policymakers were forecasting that it would be 2050 before a majority of the world got connected to the Web. But with 40% of the global population online already, and adoption of mobile broadband Internet services doubling annually in Africa, global Internet usage will easily surpass 50% by 2020, thirty years earlier than predicted.
Mobile connectivity means billions of individuals can now participate in new patterns of global economic production and collaboration. In fact, the diversity of new start-ups exploiting the combination of mobile technology and entrepreneurial energy is truly inspiring. Jana, a global market research and rewards company, connects global brands with 3.5 billion people in emerging markets by giving free mobile airtime to consumers who take market research surveys and try out products. With services like CloudFactory, a business automation start-up in Nepal, companies can now crowdsource basic text, image and audio based tasks to thousands of mobile phone users, most of them in developing countries. The company’s founder and CEO, Mark Sears, is aiming to connect one million people to digital work in the next five years, with other entrepreneurs in emerging nations quickly following on his heels. In fact, the African Digital Jobs Initiative, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, already leverages mobile technology to provide digital jobs with a living wage one million African youths in six countries. As proof of concept, a Rockefeller Foundation survey of three freelance micro-work platforms ODesk, ELance and Mobile Works found that there were already over 10,000 Nigerian workers accessing regular digital work through these platforms. Meanwhile a growing cohort of talented mobile application developers is emerging across Sub-Saharan Africa. The talent pool is sufficiently rich that talent-hungry companies like Google are now working with thousands of Android developers in countries such as Nigeria, Kenyan, Tanzania, Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon.
Of course, many challenges remain, including government corruption, a lack of access to capital and basic financial infrastructure, and the need for large investments in education and skills training. And yet, determined entrepreneurs are finding ways around these challenges. A lack of robust financial infrastructure in developing countries, for example, has led to some remarkable financial ingenuity. In Kenya, M-Pesa became the first mobile money transfer service, making it easy for anyone with a cell phone to send and receive cash. Run by Safaricom, a Kenyan mobile-phone operator, the service is overwhelmingly popular, with 15 million subscribers (from an adult population of 43 million) who use it for everything from paying electricity bills to school fees. Thanks to a simple text-based menu, M-Pesa is accessible on even the most basic mobile phone.
In 2013, Safaricom rolled out a complementary savings and loan service called M-Shwari. The service, which can be set up instantly and accessed on any device, promises to extend financial services to a large population of Kenyans that were previously excluded. Bob Collymore, Safaricom’s chief executive, believes that Kenya’s unbanked sector could have savings of $3.4 billion, much of it stuffed in jars or mattresses, earning nothing and at the mercy of thieves. M-Shwari acquired 2.3 million customers in its first four months, one-third of whom have applied for small business loans, averaging around $12.
The benefits of mobile banking go well beyond increased access to credit and financial services. Maura O’Neill, Chief Information Officer and Senior Counselor at USAID, calls mobile banking and digital cash “a game-changer in development” and recently set up a mobile solution group to pursue opportunities for innovation. “We discovered that there were two billion people in the world that had mobile phones but didn’t have bank accounts,” says O’Neil. “If we could turn every mobile phone into a digital wallet, three amazing things could happen – there would be less corruption, reduced administrative costs in government services and aid, and a more robust entrepreneurial network.”
At the GSN program, we believe that the economic potential unleashed by ubiquitous mobile connectivity will reshape the world we live in, creating unforeseen opportunities for growth, innovation and job creation in places that many feared would be by-passed by the digital revolution. In fact, the widespread and growing penetration of mobile devices around the globe makes them arguably the most important of all platforms for entrepreneurship and economic growth in the world today.