What if everyone had a smartphone? No, not just Brits. Everyone. All 7 billion people on the planet Earth. What kind of world would that be, and is it a world we want?
Mobile World Congress has been approaching this issue for a few years now, but this year we're really started to see the phones and networks that would make it possible. The $33 Android phone, Firefox phones, Nokia X, Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1, and chatter about 5G networks are all about fulfilling that dream.
If we're putting Internet connections in 7 billion hands, though, we need to decide how we're going to protect and defend ourselves from the powerful people who want to exploit those connections for their own ends, whether to profit from our personal information or to use it to restrict our personal freedom. That conversation was just starting at Mobile World Congress 2014, and I'm hoping it'll be a bigger deal next year. Let's start thinking about that now.
The Samsung Galaxy S5, LG G Pro 2, new Yotaphone, and others showed that there's still a lot going on in the high-end phones. The Galaxy S5 veered towards being a fitness tracker, a big trend at this show. Both the GS5 and the Yotaphone take on our frustration with battery life, through the GS5's power-saver mode and the Yotaphone's power-sipping E-Ink screen.
But from a business perspective, we all already have smartphones, and that makes us old hat for the industry. Developed countries are getting saturated in terms of not only smartphones, but data plans. Now, you'd think that the industry would be happy selling us a new expensive phone every few years and reaping in the fees, but that's not the way our society works. No, they need growth.
I'm also starting to feel that smartphones are beginning to approach John Dvorak's famous "Ferrari idling in the driveway" analogy. We're at a moment when smartphone processors and screens are getting ridiculously powerful - octo-core, anyone? - but the biggest application trend at the moment is over-the-top messaging, which isn't exactly processor-heavy.
So the industry's focus is shifting from more and more power to better and better affordability, connecting the unconnected. And yes, that will have positive effects for us, too. They will get decent-quality, cheaper unlocked smartphones as the norm in the next few years, leading to the crumbling of the two-year contract regime which has been propped up for so long by the need to hide expensive smartphone prices.
The official worst buzzword of MWC 2014 is "5G," because nobody has any idea what 5G means. It's kind of a running joke. But one of the things 5G might mean is a network that works in a world where you have four billion more smartphone users.
This isn't my idea; it's Intel's, and Ericsson's, and others at the show. The current network technologies are fast enough for most of the uses people can think of, when they aren't overloaded, but they're already getting overloaded. Verizon's LTE network has been struggling with demand this year, finally getting a reprieve when the company turned on its new AWS spectrum. But there just isn't an infinite amount of radio waves out there. It's physics.
So the network guys at MWC 2014 are trying to figure out how to put many, many more people (and many more inanimate objects, like cars and buildings) on networks. That could involve a cell site in every room, merging cellular and Wi-Fi, or having phones talk to each other directly rather than always to cell sites. This dream of having 7 billion people connected is only going to work if there are 7 billion connections to have.
Landline Internet comes into this equation, too, especially in the US, because around there, every one of those connections must talk to each other through the landline backbone. As Time Warner Cable tries to merge with Comcast, we need to think about the implications of having half a dozen corporations control not only our wireless information services, but the wires they connect to. If we only have a few gatekeepers, will they take us for every dollar we have?
The World We Want
When we're all connected, what kind of world do we want?
Is it a world of eternal surveillance? Blackphone was the only company at the show that really dared ask this question: when we're all connected, what protections will we have against the powerful, both from governments and corporations, abusing their knowledge of us?
Is it a world where everything's a game? That's what I see in the huge health-tracker movement at the show. Right now health tracking is the big use for wearable tech - everybody wants a discreet wristband like the Samsung Gear Fit orHuawei Talkband B1, and nobody wants to look like a cyborg in Google Glass. Ultimately, health tracking uses the incentives of a video game to get us out of our seats and away from our PCs. It's a first-world problem, to be sure, but a real one for those of us in the first world.
As the tech companies at Mobile World Congress drive towards a fully connected world, the rest of us need to ask how we're going to use these tools - and not only how we are going to use them, but how we can create a world where the powerful won't use them to run roughshod over the weak.
Connectivity empowers all of us. It keeps far-flung families together, forms communities for the isolated, tells farmers how to price their crops, and untethers workers from their desks. But it can chain us, too, putting us beneath watchful and powerful eyes. Maybe we'll hear more of that balance at MWC 2015. I hope we will.