The Personal Computer celebrates its 25th year. With more than 700 million users worldwide, it is one of the most important technological inventions of our time. The PC, together with the Internet, have for many of us become indispensable. As we look to the future, I believe that it will be the mobile-based Internet which will have an even greater impact on our lives. The promise of the mobile Internet has been there for long but only now are the pieces starting to come together.
Before we look ahead, let us begin by looking back. The Economist recently carried an article celebrating 25 years of the PC, and added:
Although the PC has its merits, it also has its faults. Its flexibility has proved to be both a strength and a weakness: it encourages innovation, but at the cost of complexity, reliability and security. And for people in the developing world, PCs are too bulky, expensive and energy-hungry. When it comes to extending the benefits of digital technologychiefly, cheap and easy access to informationto everyone on the planet, the PC may not be the best tool for the job.
Look on the streets of almost any city in the world, however, and you will see people clutching tiny, pocket computers, better known as mobile phones. Already, even basic handsets have simple web-browsers, calculators and other computing functions. Mobile phones are cheaper, simpler and more reliable than PCs, and market forcesin particular, the combination of pre-paid billing plans and microcredit schemesare already putting them into the hands of even the world’s poorest people. Initiatives to spread PCs in the developing world, in contrast, rely on top-down funding from governments or aid agencies, rather than bottom-up adoption by consumers.
There is no question that the PC has democratised computing and unleashed innovation; but it is the mobile phone that now seems most likely to carry the dream of the personal computer to its conclusion.
Take India for example. The 18 million installed base of personal computers compares with 100 million mobile phones. Mobile users are growing at nearly ten times that of the computer base. The dream of the broadband Internet in India still remains that for the most part. As a result, the benefits of the Internet for most people in India are still limited. Even though 40 million are believed to use the Internet, my estimate is that three-quarters of this user base spends only a few minutes a day on the Internet from cybercafes. In this situation, it is very difficult to rely on the PC-based Internet for ones information, communication and transaction needs.
At the same time, the mobile Internet isnt yet there. For the most part, mobiles are still used for voice and text-based messaging. There are only 3 million or so GPRS-enabled handsets in India. So, what makes me believe that Indias Internet will be more mobile-centric than PC-centric? To look to the future, one needs to peer into the past.
Tomorrow: NTT Docomos i-mode