Monday, September 24, 2007

Mobile Technology...A Bridge Too Far?

“We are told never to cross a bridge until we come to it, but this world is owned by men who have 'crossed bridges' in their imagination far ahead of the crowd.”
Author Unknown

The Digital Divide splits the world in half, those people who 'have', and those people who 'do not have' access to digital information technology. Or put it another way, the 'haves' are those people around the world who have the:

  1. Wealth - to afford devices to access the Internet
  2. Education - to operate those devices effectively
  3. Opportunity - to live near or be able to commute to an area that has access to the Internet.

In his paper "Wireless and Mobility Defined", Adam Kornak defines mobility this way: " The application of mobile devices and wireless technology to enable communication, information access, and business transactions from any device, from anyone, from anywhere, at anytime." So how does mobile technology offer a bridge for the Digital Divide, a bridge for the 'have nots' to access the infinite resources of the Internet.

  1. Wealth - Mobile devices are less expensive than personal computers and so are much more affordable and available for subsidized mass distribution.
  2. Education - Mobile devices, in part because of their low cost, can be tailored for specific functions, take the Fed Ex driver and his mobile package scanner as an example. This enables them to deliver high quality functionality with intuitive and simple to operate user interfaces.

    Physical World Connections (see my ddj blog 'RingTones') enable realworld objects to be connected to information about them on the internet. 2D barcode tags can easily hold enough information for a url and parameters to a web service. This empowers people that may not understand an operating system or desktop to simply point their camera phone at an object, take a picture and have the device connect them to the world of information. An aid worker in the plains of Africa can point their camera at a medical supply bag dropped from an airplane and get information on how to distribute, apply and help the villagers with the medicine. The tag may even connect them to a live online physician.

    The education deficit is all but eliminated.
  3. Opportunity - Mobile coverage will extend to more than 90% of the global population by 2010. In the GSM Association's white paper "Universal Access" the paper states "There will remain, however, some areas that will never be economically feasible to serve. In most countries this will be the last 2–5% of the population, which corresponds to 20–30% of the geographic area."

Mobility has the promise to bridge the digital divide in even more meaningful ways. Try this, launch iTunes, go to Podcast's, select Education from the Categories menu, than select Higher Education from the More Education Menu below. Now look at the list at the right "Today's Top Podcast's", as I write this there are entries from lectures given at Yale, Harvard, Standford, Chicago School of Law and the list goes on. When I was growing up the only way you could listen to a lecture from one of these professors was to be there. This is liberating stuff for the 'have nots', now armed with an iPod for less than $200 they can learn Spanish, Math, Reading or enter into the world of higher education and be taught by the best.

In fact the only thing the iPod lacks that keeps it from being a real Digital Divide bridge is wireless connectivity. If the iPod could access the iTunes store on it's own and sync the iPod with any updated content or subscription feeds it would be a digital divide killer. Than you could really have students in an impoverished area of Africa downloading the latest lecture from Harvard Business School and sitting down to listen to it as they watch the sun go down over the plains.

Of course mobility has many other touch points in business and consumer life but its capacity to bridge the digital divide is very real and happening now.

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