From Whence Tomorrow's Mobile Innovation?

The NY Times had a good article yesterday from the always-worth-reading Anand Giridharadas on the role mobile phones are playing in the developing world. He asks if the U.S. is going to be left out of the next great wave of tech innovation because it will happen on simpler platforms-- cheap cell phones & SMS-- rather than on sexier platforms such as, say, the iPad (FD: I'm writing this post on an iPad[!]).

In the developing world, banking is happening more and more over mobile phones. So are commerce, information services, and every kind of communication. And with well over 4 billion mobile phone users on earth (compared to only about half a billion subscribers to broadband), one must imagine that there is a future for these new applications of mobile technology. But much of the mobile innovation is happening outside the U.S., because, basically, Americans just aren't that into it.

In the near term, American technology firms are making the right decisions: bringing iPads, HD video, and sweet apps to the slim but wealthy demographic that wants (but doesn't really need) these things. In the longer term, I hope, for their sake, that these companies are thinking about building products that work for the other 6 billion people on earth-- people who are (or will be) accessing the global network on their mobile devices, at slower speeds, and using it to seek information and services relevant to their lives.

To be sure, what's relevant to a mechanic in Nairobi might not be relevant for a Rajasthani farmer, but the point of access to the network will likely be similar-- a simple mobile device-- and the applications, if not the content, will be similar. In the mobile banking space, we're seeing some innovation in the U.S.-- Obopay is an early entrant here, and you can finally pay for DC parking meters in DC with your phone-- but given their experience and expertise operating in the developing world, it's not hard to imagine Safaricom dominating the space for a long time. Particularly among the 6 billion people who have neither money nor use for an iPad.