Will the Developing World Be Mobile First or Mobile Forever?


Will the hundreds of millions who have a phone (but not a computer) take up the keyboard when they have the money?


The research firm Forrester projects that by 2016, one billion people will have a smartphone.

One. Billion. Smartphones!

That got me thinking about a Twitter debate I had with Paul Kedrosky recently. We both agree that in the next half decade or decade, many hundreds of millions of people will see their phones as their primary conduits to the world's information. Unlike those of us who grew up with desktops/laptops and then got mobiles later, these are people who will be mobile-first hardware, software, and Internet users. Their expectations will be conditioned by the devices they first owned and that will have a huge impact on their future purchasing decisions and design preferences.

However, we diverge on a key point. I maintain that the current explosion of mobile products, which far outstrips the diffusion of computers, is merely an artifact of poverty. That is, if people in rural India or the suburbs of Shanghai could afford a MacBook Air and a phone, they'd prefer to use the MacBook Air for their computing needs. As incomes rise, particularly in Asia, and computers' prices keep coming down, I fully expect that computers will diffuse throughout every society. The keyboard and mouse/touchpad paradigm will find a home everywhere people can afford such a machine.

Kedrosky's argument, in Tweet form, was, "The fixed desktop device is already anachronistic in much of world." I responded that it was more economic necessity than preference, and Paul rejoindered, "I used to think [it was] a necessity, but recent travel has made me less certain it's not more of a preference."

We agreed to disagree and make a bet that no one would remember. My guess is that we still won't, but at least this blog post will be a good reference when I win.

Of course, it's also likely that mobile-first users will change computing paradigms so thoroughly that whatever the Chinese users of 2022 decide they want, it will look neither like today's phones or computers. Perhaps, as Kevin Marks put it, "The spectrum is shifting; we have non-phone devices like kindles and ipads too. Screen independence is coming."

Image: Reuters.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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