TECH TALK: Computing for the Next Billion: The Mobile Alternative

The installed base of mobiles is nearly thrice that of computers. So, with the emergence of high-speed data networks, it is only natural that mobiles are being positioned as an alternative to computers, especially for the next billion users.

One of the proponents of using the mobile as computer is, surprisingly, Microsoft. Engadget wrote about it in January 2006:

Both Gates and Microsoft CTO Craig J. Mundie talked up the idea of a specially designed smartphone that could be connected to a TV and keyboard, turning it into a full-fledged computer. “Everyone is going to have a cellphone,” Mundie said.

The New York Times had more:

Craig J. Mundie, Microsoft’s vice president and chief technology officer, said in an interview here that the company was still developing the idea, but that both he and Mr. Gates believed that cellphones were a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses in developing nations. “Everyone is going to have a cellphone,” Mr. Mundie said, noting that in places where TV’s are already common, turning a phone into a computer could simply require adding a cheap adaptor and keyboard. Microsoft has not said how much those products would cost.

Mike Evans wrote about Nokias view of the world: [Nokia] sees the mobile phone as the single gadget you’ll need for every form of communication, information and entertainment. They want the mobile phone (and more importantly, their mobile phones) to be your one and only access to the Internet, relegating the computer to a behind the scenes role that may only exist in servers in years to come…Just as digital cameras completely demolished the traditional film-based camera market, so Dell may see its own market start to evaporate at an ever-increasing rate. And if Nokia has anything to do with it, this is exactly the future Dell and the other computer manufacturers can expect.

Russell Buckley wrote about how it would work:

My vision is that our mobiles are going to morph into something like our digital, thin client, key to our digital data, as well as a communication device. Sometimes well access that data directly, as its stored on our phones – much as we might keep games on there today. And some will be stored on the web, so well use our phones as a way of accessing and unlocking this data.

And yes, sometimes, well need to see that data on a larger screen and use more sophisticated tools to manipulate it – a keyboard and mouse and whatever comes next in that line. But rather than go to a computer, well slot our mobiles into a docking port in a keyboard/screen combo.

Philip Greenspun detailed out a plan in September 2005 to make the mobile phone into a home computer:

What would you call a device that has a screen, a keyboard, storage for personal information such as contacts, email, documents, the ability to play audio and video files, some games, a spreadsheet program, and a communications capability? Sound like a personal computer? How about “mobile phone”?

A mobile phone has substantially all of the computing capabilities desired by a large fraction of the public. Why then would someone want to go to the trouble of installing and maintaining a personal computer (PC)? The PC has a larger keyboard and screen, a larger storage capacity, can play more sophisticated games, and has a faster communications capability.

This is a plan for building an appliance into which a mobile phone plugs and that extends the phone’s capabilities without requiring the consumer to become a system administrator or be aware that he or she owns more than a phone.

Tomorrow: Network Computers

TECH TALK Computing for the Next Billion+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.