SmartPhones: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Free Exchange mentions Matt Yglesias on the underdeveloped possibilities of smart phones. Like most major, general innovations it’ll take years for the full impact to filter through:

What makes this particularly interesting is the fact that information and communication technologies (of which smartphones represent an extraordinarily elegant and powerful marriage) are a general purpose technology. They have, in other words, the potential to reshape the economy and boost productivity across all sectors and industries, like electricity or the automobile. Such transformations are about far more than simple technical innovation, however. They often require wholesale remaking of infrastructure environments, of business models, and of cultural norms. Humanity has been busy taming and repurposing electricity for centuries. Before the automobile could change the structure of cities and production chains, any number of refinements were required: mass production of affordable automobile and truck models, creation of nationwide road networks (which themselves required a massive amount of legal and cultural innovation), and accompanying energy network, relocation of metropolitan building stocks, and the development of remarkable new business models like just-in-time production and container shipping. ICT will continue this process; imagine the possibilities of a world of autonomous vehicles.

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because they’ve become so ubiquitous so fast, I think we underappreciate the revolutionary potential of a world in which powerful mini-computers are everywhere, and where every person has an unfathomable about of information available all the time. Innovations like Twitter are dazzling and useful; they may well end up the technological equivalent of a  plasma globe, a shiny, technological trinket that only hinted at the social and economic potential of the concepts upon which it was based.

The potential of the smartphone age is deceptive. We look around and see more people talking on phones in more places and playing Draw Something when they’re bored. This is just the beginning. In time, business models, infrastructure, legal environments, and social norms will evolve, and the world will become a very different and dramatically more productive place.

In the short term though, given the experience of the internet, then broadband, it is likely smart phones will be most used for pirated music, tv and film, and gambling and porn. That’s the cynic speaking.

But consider how long it is taking corporates to develop mobile websites that work on smart phones. Or how slowly lawyers and insurance companies have moved on from faxes. Or that there is still no viable, broadly acceptable e-signature for ordinary people to use securely (how often do we have to print, write, scan and email a form?).

It’s going to take a while. Hope I’m around to see it.

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