Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt returned to the Mobile World Congress Tuesday to outline a future in which the digital divide of the connected and unconnected will be replaced by another divide defined by levels of connectivity – and potentially dominated by Google’s web platforms.
Schmidt said in an evening keynote that despite the majority of the world population with mobile phones, and the growing importance of mobile as a primary internet access device, only 2 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people are online.
The digital revolution still hasn’t arrived for those 5 billion people who aren’t online, but that doesn’t mean we should be defeatist about that.
As smartphone prices drop and connectivity becomes ubiquitous, a different divide will emerge, with the “ultraconnected” – the “lucky few” – at the leading edge, where bandwidth is plentiful, devices are affordable, everything is on the cloud and technology becomes as invisible as electricity is now. “It will just be there. The Web will be everything and at the same time nothing.”
In the middle ground will be “connected contributors”, a sort of technological middle class that will leverage mobile and IT technology in new ways, whether they become creators of new products, services and apps, or sophisticated consumers of them.
At the bottom end will be the “aspiring majority” – the other 5 billion, who in the next decade will have affordable smartphones and some level of network access, either via fiber, mobile broadband or even GPRS, as well as options such as Wi-Fi-powered mesh networks.
“Not every individual will necessarily have connectivity, but their communities will,” Schmidt said. “Even that level of connectivity will redefine their relationship with the world.”
As such, he said, technology will emerge as a leveling force at last in terms of opportunity if not wealth. “Those with nothing will at least have something. It’s true that the 5 billion will be behind in the sense that they’ll have the equivalent of dial-up while the elite have fiber, but that doesn’t negate the importance of getting them connected.”
During the Q&A session following the talk, Schmidt was more forthcoming about how Google sees itself in the future he described – particularly in terms of its search business and its Android platform, with “ideally an Android in every pocket”.
Schmidt said that Android smartphones will reach the $100-$150 price point by next year, and down to $70 soon afterwards, which could mean Android handsets being resold in the gray markets in emerging nations for as low as $20.
Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum, said in a research note that with the advancement of technology and huge economies of scale that are starting to drive the Android economy, “Android’s astonishing growth so far may well look modest in coming years.”
Cripps said Schmidt’s vision of the future was “realistic” as well as “a huge opportunity for Google, which it fully intends to exploit to the maximum.” As such, mobile industry players have a right to feel uncomfortable given Google’s dominant role in the mobile ecosystem, Cripps said.
“The company’s activities have already made it hard for other many mobile ecosystem players to offer value-added services to their subscriber bases, especially towards the higher end of the market,” Cripps said. “This effect now looks to be accelerating and driving downwards into the global mass market, meaning that its impact will become more profound both in new markets and new segments.”
Cripps added: “The onus increasingly looks to be falling on those parties to lobby for a more equitable competitive landscape, as regards value added services and network access, or to seek closer, more beneficial partnerships with Google and other major OTT players.”