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Mobile tipping point: What Antarctica, Nepal, and the Isle of Man say about the future of phones

Published: January 25, 2016

Author: John Koetsier

In Antarctica, there’s almost no bandwidth. Yet scientists download and play Candy Crush. In Syria, there’s almost no country. Yet parents worry about kids spending too much time with technology. In American Samoa, there’s no other land for 2,000 miles. But the locals enjoy 4G LTE on the beaches.
What’s going on?
In 2016 we are reaching a global tipping point. More people will own a smartphone than will not. And if we have any clue what smartphones have done to our culture and commerce in the Western world, that’s going to have an almost incalculably massive planet-wide impact.
In fact, the impact will be felt by “us,” too, since our lives will change as much in the next five years as they have in the past nine since Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone.
The clues are all around us – all around the globe.
Take India, for example. Indians download more commerce and shopping apps per capita than any other country – almost four times as many as Americans. App installs jumped almost 250% last year. Just recently, India joined China as the only two countries with more than a billion mobile phone subscribers, and by the end of the year, over 200 million of them will be smartphone users.
But the pivot is not really about the big numbers in Asia, Africa, and South America, the three charging horses of the emerging global mobile economy.
Instead, it’s about usage.
Those shopping app downloads? They’re due to a mobile economy where m-commerce is the norm and e-commerce is the oddity. The hyper-growth? That’s due to a felt need for computing and connection hardly comparable to the long- computer-centric Western world. We’re seeing similar things in China and other Asian nations.
The reality is that much of the world skipped the desktop dependency that we developed, and went straight to mobile. For most, globally, the smartphone is the only computer they know and care about.
And that’s driving behavior that we’re just starting to see here: mobile-mediated purchasing, messaging as an operating system for commerce, and the emerging power of mobile to suck up massive amounts of the $600 billion global ad spend.
It’s frankly ironic that we still call these bricks in our pockets “phones.” That’s the least of what they do. In fact, they are the “everything device,” at once a book, a movie, an encyclopedia, a map, a game, a digital assistant, a store … or as many different tasks as you have apps for.
Essentially, the smartphone’s most important defining characteristic is that it is an authenticated personal on-ramp to the distributed digital universe. And that’s precisely what makes it so valued at the periphery of the planet.

  • “My phone is a constant reminder that there is life out there somewhere,” a field technician with the Australian Antarctica Division told me.
  • “I do a lot of FaceTiming … for someone who lives so far away, I couldn’t live without it,” a former resident of the Isle of Man said.
  • “It’s not uncommon to see a porter carrying a 75-point load while talking on his phone,” the owner of Sherpa Adventure Gear told me about life in Nepal.

On the edges, in the peripheries, we see how mobile is shaping culture and commerce in ways unfiltered through a pre-existing desktop preference. And we see how the “everything device” will become the digital appendage through which everything else is filtered.
Even long after the current form factor disappears onto our face, or our wrist, into our clothing, or inside our bodies.
Looking for more details? See our Global Tipping Point report.

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