Personal computers are a mind-expanding device for the world’s first wealthiest one billion people. But they are a very primitive, early adopter device in comparison to the smartphone. A smartphone is a personal computer which is tiny, wireless, and increasingly aware of its environment.
There are over one billion smartphone users now. In a few years, the entire population of cellphone users will be smartphone users. A few years after that, every cell phone will exceed the power of today’s high-end desktop.
In early 2014, we will see high-end smartphones with print-quality screens, 8 cores, and 4GB of memory, and the graphic power of today’s high end video game consoles. By 2016-2018 every cell phone will have the power of a modern desktop.
What happens then?
The speed of innovation for a technology is limited the size of its market. Personal computers have been rapidly growing in adoption, but hit a peak at one billion users. They are not feasible in much of the rest of the world, and soon they will become irrelevant in the developed world. Smartphones have a potential customer base of seven to eight billion users, which means even faster technological progress. Within a decade, personal computers will disappear from common experience, replaced by cloud-backed communication interfaces and sensory nets.
Most pundits assume that the non-elites of the world will standardize on cheap (sub $100) commodity smartphones. I think what is really revolutionary and exciting is that the entire world will standardize on the minimally-functional smartphone necessary to join the human community.
The smartphone used by the world’s other six billion people will offer the minimum functionality needed to participate in the persistent-connection-enabled marketplace. We cannot say now what that functionality will be.
For example, for current smartphones, the “base” functionality means capacitive touch, HTML5 web browser, HD video, 3D graphics, an app store, etc. Future devices will have their own minimum functionality that will serve as a gateway to full membership in society, in the same way that car or credit card ownership does in some parts of the USA. It may be immersive holographic headsets or quasi-AI-capable CPU’s.
Global smartphone adoption will universalize and democratize access to the marketplace in the same way that jeans have universalized and democratized fashion and Coca Cola and hamburgers have democratized diets. But unlike these trends of fashion, opening access to the marketplace is a transformative paradigm shift. It will enable new business models such as digital currency, distance learning, and many that we cannot now imagine.