3.5 billion phones - 5000 days
september 9, 2008
By Tom Wheeler
Two seemingly unrelated facts are converging to define our future. The first is the unprecedented growth in wireless communications with over 3.5 billion people connected. The second is the realization that the Web is only 5,000 days old and still in its infancy. To date these two trends have flirted with each other; the next 5,000 days will see each one defining the other.
It took from the beginning of time until 2001 for one billion people to be interconnected. Thanks to the mobile phone the second billion took only four years. The third billion came even faster two years later. We are now over half way to the 4th billion person connected to a wireless network.
The acceleration of human connectivity is mind-boggling. It took thousands of generations before the first billion people were connected. Think about it: during this period nomadic tribes put down roots; the Greek and Roman empires rose and fell; the Earth was discovered to be round, then explored, and then left behind to explore the universe. Tens of thousands of years of history transpired before one billion inhabitants of planet earth were connected. Then, in an historical nanosecond, the number doubled and then tripled. And the march of wireless connectivity continues; if it takes you two minutes to read this article 2,000 additional people will have become wirelessly connected.
Mankind has always been defined by the networks that connect us. The new mobile networks are continuing that tradition by redirecting the patterns of our lives and redefining the flow of information. The last generation of networks (the railroad, telegraph and telephone) drew everyone together in a centralized society. These were switch-based networks where a boxcar or a phone call was transported to a central point before being dispatched to its destination. Economic activity mimicked this central hub topology as raw materials were transported to a central site for processing before being shipped out again. Not surprisingly, the creation and consumption of information followed the same path of being transported to editors and publishers, reformatted and redistributed.
As the mobile network embraces IP technology it, like distributed networks in general, functions in precisely the opposite manner: away from centralized routing, to activity at the edge of the network. And just like previous history, economic, social and information activities bend to the network force. This time that force is away from the center.
This brings us to the 5,000-day-old Web, a concept first surfaced by Kevin Kelly of Wired. What is important in this concept is not the calendar count (it begins with Netscape), but the relatively short period during which the Web has become such a pervasive force affecting our lives. Five thousand days is 13.7 years; think how our lives have changed since 1994 – anyone buy a ticket from a travel agent lately?
The question Kelly asks is, “What will happen in the next 5,000 days?” The answer is that a mobile-connected world is going to change the Web yet again.
The last 18 months have opened the window on the real mobile Web. Previously the relationship between the Web and mobility was a shotgun marriage; the parties knew they had to get together, but the union was forced. Changes in hardware, networks and carrier attitude, however, have stimulated a new generation of mobile Web applications that are more than middleware-assisted displays of reformatted Web pages. This ability to access the real Web at any point changes the nature of both the Web and the mobile experience.
As the new distributed networks have flung activity to the edge of the network mobility is moving that activity to its logical end point: the individual. Nineteenth and 20th Century hubs were cities and switches; 21st Century hubs will be at the ultimate edge, the person.
Location-based activity is an early indicator of the kind of personalization that results when Web activity is moved to the individual. But changing the functionality of the Web based on knowledge of the user’s location is just the beginning. Because information is affected by where it is created and consumed, moving those activities will change the character of the information. During its first 5,000 days Web information creation and consumption was centralized and tethered in a structure reflecting the old networks: the information had to be brought to or accessed from a physical place (whether a desktop or a jack in the wall) in order to be useful.
The functionality of the Web is transformed, however, when the information is created and consumed en situ. The other day on the Washington Metro I watched as a young woman asked a stranger if she could take a picture of the other woman’s haircut using her mobile phone. I don’t know what she did with those photos, but imagine that she uploaded them from the Metro car to a Web site that then distributed the photos to her friends. That young woman suddenly became a publisher of information, her P2P mobile-to-mobile transmission not only broke the old paradigm of centralized publishing, but also redefined the Web as a path rather than a place.
If pictures of haircuts do not exactly seem transformational, consider how fishermen in Kerala, India use their personal mobile hub, even while at sea, to coordinate supply with the demand for their product. Before becoming part of the 3.5 billion wireless users these fishermen often returned with a catch that exceeded demand, forcing down income and wasting the unpurchased catch. Decentralizing access to market information through a simple phone call, however, has increased the fishermen’s productivity and benefitted the entire village, raising the per capita GDP by 2%. Now imagine how remote access to a Web-based market could even further enhance the fishermen’s position by improving the efficiency of the fish market not just in Kerala, but up and down the Indian coast.
Such stories suggest the transformational potential of distributing communication power to the ultimate edge: the hands of individuals. When that power fully hits the Web neither mobile nor the Web will ever be the same. Information is of the greatest value at the point where is it created and consumed. Going to a physical place to create or consume information diminishes its productivity. The ability to have personalized input into the Web from wherever the individual hub may be and then to similarly extract information to a personal hub wherever the individual is located is a new experience in human history and will have impacts we can only now imagine.
The fishermen of Kerala, India and the young lady on the Washington Metro are just the early indicators of what happens when 3.5 billion mobile information creation and consumption devices collide with the nascent World Wide Web. Mobility is going to make the first 5,000 days of the Web seem much like the old carnival barker’s come on: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Tom Wheeler is a Managing Director at Core Capital Partners, a venture capital firm specializing in early stage, technology-based companies. He previously served as CEO of both the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) and National Cable Television Association (NCTA).