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What If Dumb Phones (and Chairs) Are the Future of Tech?

What If Dumb Phones (and Chairs) Are the Future of Tech?

We almost take it as an article of faith that our mobile devices are getting smarter and smarter, that each new product cycle represents a step forward in the evolution of technology, and that smart phones are the future. This is understandable — we recently reached a tipping point where more Americans own “smart” phones than “dumb” phones. And we all know how even the slightest whiff of a rumor about a new iPhone can bring on a paroxysm of anticipation (or, at least, a strong sense of deja vu). So here’s a crazy idea: what if the next great wave of technological innovation is brought on not by the “smart” phone, but by the humble “dumb” phone?

The reason, quite simply, is that we are witnessing a broad secular change in global innovation. After years in which the West was the primary engine of global innovation, it’s now up to the rest of the world to jump-start the next great wave of global innovation. The UN estimates that there are 6 billion cell phone subscriptions in the world – and 2 billion of those are in China and India. That also means that there are 1 billion people in the world who have neither cell phones nor cell phone subscriptions

In short, the next round of global tech innovation could be driven by what Peter Diamandis refers to in his new book Abundance as the “Rising Billion” – the billion people at the very bottom of the economic pyramid who are coming online for the first-time ever. They are the billion people in places like Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America who don’t have computers or land lines, but they do have dumb phones. And they want these simple dumb phones to do everything that their smart phone competitors in the West already do.

That’s the sweet spot for mobile innovation — developing new strategies for connecting all these dumb phones to the Internet and transforming them into instruments of global change.

And innovators are appearing to take advantage of these disruptive market opportunities. At last month’s Tech Crunch Disrupt event in San Francisco (typically a precursor of new innovations on the immediate horizon), one of the finalists in the Startup Battlefield competition was Saya, a company creating instant messaging and SMS solutions for the dumb phones of Africa. And there are scores of other examples. At last week’s TEDx Kabul event in Afghanistan, Afghan innovators shared stories of how they were using simple dumb phones to construct robust online education networks and social networks held together only by dumb phones. In one example, software was able to transform a dumb phone into a smart phone loaded with the nation’s literacy curriculum that could be accessed even while offline. Best of all, the ubiquity of these dumb phones means that they are available at any local bazaar for cheap.

To (badly) paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Rising Billion are different from you and me. Imagine having mobile phones but no drinkable water supply. Imagine having mobile phones but no access to bank branches or doctors’ offices. As a result, the Rising Billion need their “dumb” phones to connect them with their most basic needs — food, clothing and clean water — in creative new ways. This is not to say that smart phones are not important – only that we may be underestimating the power of the dumb phone to achieve these same goals.

Empty facebook chair

And this is a message that seems to have unconsciously resonated across the technology landscape. Just think of the new Facebook video celebrating the social network’s one billionth user: the film compared the ubiquitous social network to, of all things, a chair. (And a doorbell. And a bridge.) The point was to demonstrate how Facebook had become a core part of our everyday existence by serving the role of something as basic as a chair. Facebook was not a blinking high-tech gizmo, it was something as comforting and everyday as a chair. And it was as dumb as a doorbell.

Once you buy into the idea of how Facebook is like a chair, it’s easy to understand how the humble dumb phone may drive the next great wave of transformation in tech. Not in America, but in the rest of the world. The Rising Billion does not need sophisticated smart phones when their governments can not provide the very basic necessities of life. What they need are simple, everyday objects – like dumb phones – that can perform everyday acts of magic. There are now 6 billion mobile phones in the world, and not all of them are smart phones. If you’re a long-term believer in how technology can change the world, keep an eye out for the dumb phone and the chair. They might just be the future of technology.

image: Many hands holding mobile phones / Shutterstock


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