Memories of a fast-changing mobile world: how different is today

Digital World Blog

As I’m gearing up for ITU Telecom World 2013 in Bangkok, I’m reminded of what a difference a few years make.

In 1999, I was in a start-up enabling content delivery through the mobile web. We had the future at our fingertips. In hindsight, little did we understand what would happen in the following years.

Even though 1999 was a turning point in mobile penetration—one handset was sold every four seconds in the UK—there were “only” 300 million mobile phone subscribers. And almost not a single one of them was going online (yes, the start-up failed).

Mobile hadn’t met the internet yet.

In 2008, I was residing in Tokyo, I was living in the future. Japanese carriers had standardized so many features unavailable for the rest of us that it truly felt like science-fiction. Some of the behaviours we dreamt about in our little start-up were happening in front of my own eyes.

Mobile hadn’t truly met apps yet.

“This is the year of mobile” has been muttered in every major ICT event of the past decade. Like a teenager in need of constant reassurance.

It’s not needed anymore. Mobile is a given.

WAP, monochrome screen and paltry speeds are signs of a bygone era. Japanese handset manufacturers have abandoned ship one after the other. The major players of 1999, Nokia or Motorola, have lost their shine. BlackBerry, that had released its first email pager that year, is suffering harshly.

It’s a tectonic shift. Mobility has taken over the world, using whichever metric you want to use. It’s the biggest platform shift of the past 50 years.

The mobile market is, though, not fully defined yet. Mobile web, apps, stores, all still feel embryonic, no matter how big those are. How we communicate, engage, learn, reach and diffuse knowledge over mobile is not truly set.

The land grab is in full force. Wave after wave. Some desktop web players are sent to oblivion. Others, from Google to Facebook, are adapting to a mobile world. Mobile-only players like LINE or WeChat are emerging fast. Just imagine: What’s App already sees more pictures shared daily than Facebook.

The change is happening fast.

Twitter, which just went public, was born right in the middle of that shift, with its 140 characters limitation borne out of the desire to communicate over SMS. But the most successful standardized method of mobile communication is threatened itself: What’s App alone sees 14 billion messages exchanged daily.

The change is happening extremely fast.

Where does that leave the telcos? They’re undoubtedly an integral part of the revolution, acting as gatekeepers—subsidies, data coverage and pricing are defining growth—, but their role has changed too, whether you benchmark it against 1999 or 2008.

Mobile technologies are changing the world.

In our pockets, we have much more computing power than a desktop PC of 2008. More computing power that the entire world in 1950. Can you imagine the next 15 years?

I’ve gathered a group of fascinating individuals to share their views on the mobile disruption: Benedict Evans, Robbie Hills and Oscar Veronese. Join us at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok.

Paul Papadimitriou, Innovation Consultant, Digital Intelligence – Interview

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