**Unpopular Opinion Alert**
Last month, the Economist ran a cover story about the global reach of the smartphone, claiming that the device will be the pinnacle technology to transform the global economy. While traveling throughout Asia for the last 4 months, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and experience this revolution first hand. The smartphone is everywhere. It has the potential to change everything.
However, I have some doubts. The story’s subtitle claims "the smartphone is ubiquitous, addictive, and transforming.” Ubiquitous? Yes. Addictive? Absolutely! Transforming? Not yet...
In the next five years, predictions estimate that the number of smartphones will double from 2 billion today to 4 billion by 2020. That's a mind-boggling point to appreciate for a moment. "80% of adults will have a device in their pocket with the processing power that would have passed for a supercomputer not too many years ago.”
And yet, what are people going to use that device for?
Call me cynical, but I don’t think that the rise of the smartphone, as it is used today, means much more than revenue for hardware makers and more eyeballs for companies dependent on advertising. Leo Babauta's book, Focus, highlights the frightening reality about the digital revolution: we spend more time than ever consuming and communicating at the expense of creating.
Creation is where the magic happens. It's where services, creative ventures, and businesses are brought into the world, solving pain points for end users. Although smartphones provide the opportunity to constantly appear busy, imagination and creativity arise from allowing your brain to relax and wander. That's significantly more challenging if you're refreshing Instagram every time you're in a boring situation.
At Yahoo’s recent mobile developer conference, their acquisition of Flurry Analytics provided insight into the rapidly maturing mobile landscape. Q3 2014 was an inflection point for the smartphone: for the first time ever, consumers spent more time each day on smartphones (177 minutes) than watching television (168 minutes).
These eyeballs mean the smartphone is the future of advertising. So it should come as no surprise that the two internet advertising giants, Facebook and Google, are also the two companies most aggressively pursuing high-speed internet distribution to the developing world. Although the moonshot projects appear gratuitous, don’t lose sight that more users = more advertising dollars.
The most popular apps in the world today fall into two major categories: chat and social media. With the exception of “creating" the perfect Snapchat picture/caption combination, time spent in these apps is wholly spent consuming or communicating.
Upsettingly, this isn’t a phenomena limited to Silicon Valley, the United States, or even the developed world. In Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, I've witnessed waiters, drivers, and school children consistently leverage the phone as their constant companion, their pill to eradicate boredom.
Chat and social media fit two-thirds of the Economist’s description: they are ubiquitous and addicting. Moving forward, how can mobile devices also fulfill on the promise to transform by contributing to the greater good and stimulating the economy in developing countries? In some places, it already has. The Arab Spring and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution are great examples of how popular social media applications can democratize communication.
Yet powerful economic stimulation results from empowering innovation and entrepreneurship; through enabling people to not only communicate, but also create and grow new enterprises. A few basic services come to mind that have the potential to vastly improve quality of life:
Enabling small business owners around the world to transact money digitally should make it easier for entrepreneurs to save money, manage finances, and grow their businesses through access to financial institutions.
Telehealth has swept across the United States like a tsunami wave in the last few years, making video and chat consultations with doctors accessible for individuals in remote areas. As high speed internet encompasses the globe, distributing this established technology across the world stands to benefit millions more.
Instead of stunting creativity and destroying attention spans in children, mobile has the power to create engaging online classrooms that can empower an entire generation with a world-class education. The only limit in this realm is one's imagination.
It may be hard to believe, but 2/3rds of the world still isn’t connected to the Internet. Instead of building another messaging app, developers driven by impact over profit should try to tackle practical challenges, ones that stand to truly benefit those who need it most. How can we ensure the mobile platform enables people all over the world to become not just consumers and collaborators, but also creators?