Prediction and Reactions

PREDICTION:  The mobile phone is the primary connection tool for most people in the world. In 2020, while “one laptop per child” and other initiatives to bring networked digital communications to everyone are successful on many levels, the mobile phone—now with significant computing power—is the primary Internet connection and the only one for a majority of the people across the world, providing information in a portable, well-connected form at a relatively low price. Telephony is offered under a set of universal standards and protocols accepted by most operators internationally, making for reasonably effortless movement from one part of the world to another. At this point, the “bottom” three-quarters of the world’s population account for at least 50% of all people with Internet access—up from 30% in 2005.

Expert Respondents’ Reactions (N=578)
Mostly Agree  77%
Mostly Disagree  22%
Did Not Respond  *%

All Respondents’ Reactions (N=1,196)
Mostly Agree  81%
Mostly Disagree  19%
Did Not Respond  *%
Note:  Since results are based on a nonrandom sample, a margin of error cannot be computed. The “prediction” was composed to elicit responses and is not a formal forecast.

Respondents were presented with a brief set of information outlining the status quo of the issue 2007 that prefaced this scenario. It read:

According to the UN/ITU World Information Society Report 2007, there has been some progress in improving digital inclusion: In 1997 the nearly three-quarters of the world’s population who lived in low-income and lower-middle-income economies accounted for just 5% of the world’s population with Internet access3 By 2005, they accounted for just over 30%. A number of commercial and non-profit agencies are combining forces to bring inexpensive laptop computers to remote regions of the world to connect under-served populations. In addition, by the end of 2008 more than half the world’s population is expected to have access to a mobile phone.

Overview of Respondents’ Reactions

A significant majority of expert respondents agreed with this predicted future. The consensus is that mobile devices will continue to grow in importance because people need to be connected, wherever they are. Cost-effectiveness and access are also factors driving the use of phones as connection devices. Many respondents believe that mobile devices of the future will have significant computing power. The experts fear that limits set by governments and/or corporations seeking control might impede positive evolution and diffusion of these devices; according to respondents, this scenario’s predicted benefit of “effortless” connectivity is dependent on corporate and government leaders’ willingness to serve the public good.

The overwhelming majority of respondents agreeing with this scenario took note of the current boom in cell phone and smartphone use and imagined its extension. “By 2020 we should see several billion cell phones shipping per year, most of which will be Internet-capable; this will probably dwarf the volumes of other Internet-capable devices, such as PCs,” wrote one anonymous participant.

There are 6.6 billion people in the world, and the UN estimates that 1.2 billion have access to and use the Internet (2007 figures). Wireless Intelligence, a market database, reports that it took 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell, just four years for the second billion, and two years for the third billion.4 The firm projects there will be 4 billion cell phones in the world by the end of 2008; about 11 percent were Internet-enabled in 2007, and it is expected that could rise to 15 percent by the end of 2008. (It is important to remember that some people own more than one mobile phone—in 2007 it was estimated that 700 million people owned more than one—so 3 billion phones does not equate to 3 billion people who have and use mobile phones.)

Several survey participants noted in their written elaborations to the survey question that connectedness serves humanity in so many ways that even people who are struggling to make a dollar a day in the world’s least-developed nations find the economics of mobile telephony to be manageable and sometimes even vital to their lives.

“Communication is a basic human need,” responded Howard Rheingold, Internet sociologist and author of “Virtual Community” and “Smart Mobs.” “People who are trying to scrape by have immediate need for connection to information about local labor and commodities markets. Public-health and disaster-relief information can be an SMS [short-message-service—or “text”] message away. People in Africa turned paid telephone minutes into an ad-hoc, grassroots, e-currency, because they had the need to transfer small amounts of money. Billions of squatters might live in slums but still ingeniously and often illegally deliver the construction and utilities services they need. There are already reasons why people at the bottom of the economic system need and can use cheap telecommunication. Once they are connected, they will think of their own ways to use connectivity plus computation to relieve suffering or increase wealth.”

Lutfor Rahman, of the Association for Advancement of Information Technology in Bangladesh, said mobile communication is world-changing. “Before introducing the mobile phone in remote areas of Bangladesh, the exchange of information was through physically meeting,” he wrote. “That wasted much time, and sometimes it became impossible in short time because of lack of communication facilities.”

Gbenga Sesan, a Nigerian and consultant on the use of the Internet for development for Paradigm Initiative, has written extensively about the use of mobile communications. “With the rise in the number of mobile phone users across the continent, it is only wise to start planning that the future will be driven through mobile phones—governance, businesses, networking, leisure, and more,” he commented. “The story will be the same across the world. Regardless of technology choice (GSM, CDMA, etc), mobile telephones will form the core of human interaction and livelihood. And when you consider the fact that some mobile phones were competing with computers in 2007, you can only wonder if owning a PC will matter by December 31, 2019.”

It Will Be More Computer Than Phone

Many who responded with a further elaboration on this scenario said while the device we will be using will be small and possibly resemble today’s wireless phones in its shape, it will actually be a multitasking computer, used less for voice communication than for other tasks. “The computing power that will be able to fit into a phone-size device in 13 years will be incredible,” wrote an anonymous respondent. 

“By 2020 a device that more closely resembles today’s mobile phone rather than today’s computer will certainly be the primary connection tool,” said Paul Miller, a technology evangelist for Talis, a UK-based Web company, and blogger for ZDNet. “Whether it is at all ‘phone’-like, or even used very often for voice-only communication is more open to question, though.”

Susan Crawford, the founder of OneWebDay and an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) board member, agreed. “By 2020 we’ll stop talking about ‘phones,’ with any luck,” she wrote.  “Nor will we be talking about ‘telephony.’ Those terms, I hope, will be dead. These devices will just be handsets of which we’ll be very fond. They’ll have screens that are just large enough for us to feel immersed in the visuals provided.  What will we be doing? Using the Internet. Interacting, doing work, talking, participating, uploading to the cloud. By 2020, the network providers of ‘telephony’ will have been (with any luck) disintermediated. We’ll have standard network connections around the world, but they won’t be optimized on billing (as telephone and wireless connections are now). Billions of people will have joined the Internet who don’t speak English. They won’t think of these things as ‘phones’ either—these devices will be simply lenses on the online world.”

Rich Miller, CEO for Replicate Technologies and an Internet pioneer with ARPANET, wrote, “The ‘phone’ as such is more likely to be a personal media server/media gateway. This same personal media server—size not much different than today’s mobile phone—permits varieties of ‘terminal’ devices, including display, voice input/output, etc. Audio and video interfaces are more likely to be separate devices (like today’s Bluetooth headset, but with more user interface controls).”

Steve Jones, co-founder of the Association of Internet Researchers and associate dean at the University of Illinois-Chicago, projected, “By 2020 I don’t think it will be so easy to distinguish between a mobile phone and a laptop. These will blend into a general ‘mobile computing’ category of device (for which we probably don’t yet have a name).”

Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of Voice on the Net Coalition, a senior fellow for the Benton Foundation and former White House policy advisor, commented, “The mobile ‘phone’ will largely be eclipsed and replaced by the open network device—an open mobile computing device also capable of voice. But the assumption is correct that these mobile devices will be more significant and ubiquitous than wired devices. In terms of inclusion, there are already developing countries that have set up open and competitive wireless markets to foster these innovations and reap their benefits. But other developing countries that still have government-run telecom sectors or that haven’t enabled wireless competition could be further left behind.”

And Jeff Jarvis, top blogger at and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and many other respondents said we should not concentrate on the appliance, but the connectivity. “We will have many devices that are constantly connected; in that sense, it’s connectivity that will be mobile and the devices will merely plug in,” Jarvis explained. “This will lead to a world that is not only connected but also live and immediate. Witnesses will share news as they witness it. We can get answers to any question anytime. We can stay in constant touch with the people we know, following their lives as we follow RSS and Twitter feeds.”

Respondents Say Mobility Is Key to Sharing Information Everywhere in the World

In 2007 the bottom three-quarters of the world’s population included about 30 percent of the people who have Internet access. The 2020 scenario proposed to survey respondents that this number will rise to 50 percent. Participants agreed that mobile communications devices—most of them not yet Internet-connected—have made an amazing impact already and will continue to bridge the digital divide and promote digital inclusion. Geert Lovink wrote, “We now still look at the world from a ‘digital divide’ perspective, but that will soon be of little use. The massive use by the ’emerging’ underclasses of the ‘Global South’ of mobile phones should be interpreted as a necessity of the labour force to gain mobility in order to increase their output.”

Charles Kenny, senior economist for the World Bank, the international aid agency, commented, “The mobile phone will be used for an increasing range of services such as m-banking in developing countries, but it will also remain key as a tool for voice communication. For around a quarter of the world’s population still officially illiterate (and many more functionally illiterate), voice telephony will remain the primary means of communicating over distance.” An anonymous survey participant added, “Voice communication is the most common method used by humans to communicate, and devices with voice capabilities will be key.”

Jonne Soininen, Internet Engineering Task Force and Internet Society leader and manager of Internet affairs for Nokia Siemens Network, added, “In many places having fixed infrastructure is not possible either physically or economically, thus, making mobile systems the viable option for Internet access.”

Active Internet Society and ICANN participant Cheryl Langdon-Orr said she takes issue with the figure of 50 percent of the world being connected, and she hopes for more. “Mobile device connectivity to the Internet is indeed a cost-effective e-future vision for many,” she wrote, “but in my utopia where the Internet Society states ‘The Internet is for Everyone’ we would be looking at much more than 50 percent of people being online by 2020.”

And Sudip Aryal, president of the Nepal Rural Information Technology Development Society, wrote, “to meet this target of 50 percent or even more than that, each and every country should make ICT as a national-priority issue. Just like the awareness of HIV/AIDS and use of condoms, the national and international bodies must launch a program to aware about the ‘importance of Internet in one’s life’ to the grass root communities.”

Michael Botein, a telecommunications law expert at New York University and consultant to the Federal Communications Commission, said improved, affordable mobile technology could help pave the way to a friendlier world. “It is difficult to foresee a future short of a technological breakthrough in which mobile technology will have enough bandwidth to provide data services, real-time video, and the like,” he wrote. “On a positive note, however, cellular will allow the beginnings of universal service in most parts of the world—as already in Latin America and Africa—and thus may help break down long-held hostilities.”

Several respondents, including Neil McIntosh, director of editorial development for the top news site, based in London, said, “a greater and more fundamental problem, however, may be poor literacy and continued widespread poverty, which technology by itself can’t solve.”

Some Experts Express Doubts About Interoperability and Open Networks

Some of those who chose to mostly agree with this scenario did so while expressing reservations about parts of it. A number of them suggested that governments and/or corporations concerned with retaining or gaining more control over use of the Internet might limit some types of connection in certain parts of the world, and others projected a potential lack of universal standards and protocols in a world of changing technology.

Michael Zimmer, resident fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, wrote, “I agree almost entirely with this prediction… My only hesitation is whether there will be universal standards and protocols accepted by most operators internationally, since US mobile providers have shown little interest in providing full interoperability and open devices to take full advantage of new mobile services.”

Social media research expert danah boyd of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society wrote, “Traditional carriers have little incentive to include poor populations, and the next five years will be rife with battles between carriers, municipal, and federal governments, handset makers, and content creators. I don’t know who will win. If the carriers continue to own the market, network access through mass adoption of the mobile will be far slower than if governments would begin blanketing their land with WiFi (or network access on other spectrum channels) as a public-good infrastructure project and handset makers would begin making cheap accessible handsets for such access. The latter dynamic would introduce network access (and telephony) to many more people, much to the chagrin of carriers.”

Ross Rader, a member of the ICANN Registrars Constituency and executive for Tucows Inc., wrote, “This scenario may likely happen over the next few years, not the next 12. The only real obstacle to this level of adoption and social integration lies with the willingness of the telecommunications industry to resist the temptation to segregate and verticalize its offerings. In other words, the communications network market must be made much more competitive than it is today. Handsets need to be freed from applications, and applications need to be freed from networks. Only truly open networks will drive the sort of adoption envisaged in this scenario. We are starting to see the first glimpses of this today with Google’s Android, Verizon’s open network initiative, the power of the iPhone, but much work in all of these, and other, areas remains to be done before the networks, applications, and handsets markets are fully competitive.”

A few respondents said they believe corporate leaders are interested in the positive diffusion of affordable technology tools to less-developed areas of the world. Peter Kim, a senior analyst for Forrester Research, commented, “Handset manufacturers have already started to focus on countries with lower GDP. Continued efficiency in production and increase in computing power, along with the natural desire of humans to connect will help make this scenario a reality.”

Many survey participants expressed concerns about pricing. One anonymous respondent wrote, “The success of the mobile phone as a universal-access device is contingent on adoption of flat-rate style charges, as is normal for Internet applications, rather than high per-minute charges which currently dominate mobile-pricing structures.”

Bandwidth, Screen Size, Poor User-Interface Are Among the Other Potential Limits Cited

Some respondents who mostly disagreed with the scenario wrote that delivery will continue to be more efficient through earth-based connections. “Wireless doesn’t ever provide as much bandwidth as wired connections; wireless will always be slower, thus second-best,” wrote one anonymous respondent. “Primary ‘work’ will still be done over wired connections, with wireless filling in the gaps and supporting mobile applications.” Another wrote, “Will there be enough wireless infrastructure for truly complex Internet applications on a phone?”

Another more multi-layered response in regard to limitations of the scenario came from an anonymous survey participant: “Wireless technologies have a number of inherent problems including but not limited to interference and capacity. The simple log trend of traffic and data patterns precludes wireless. While some form of ubiquitous wireless access will be available most places, fibre will be more important than ever. Phones also have UI restrictions, any conception of phones without other peripheral interfacing technologies such as HUDS eye movement/brain interfaces simply will not meet the needs.”

“Unless the phone—which will really be seen as the one device that we carry around that includes voice, text, still/video camera, GPS, AV player, computer, voice-to-digital-information interface, Internet, television, bank account, etc.—has the capacity to project at least a 15″ display, it will be too small to use as the primary connection tool for the majority of world-wide users,” wrote Peter Eckart, director of health information technology for the Illinois Public Health Institute. “The majority of us will carry our digital presence indicator with us from place to place on that device, but the bandwidth and interface will be provided by our home or work or coffee shop, with the device there to maintain digital identity. I do agree that the mobile device will be the primary or only connection for poorer folks. People’s wealth or income will be reflected in the size of their display, the number of Ds (2 or 3), their connection speed, amount of digital storage, and most importantly, their level of access to information stores.”

Adrian Schofield, a leader in the World Information Technology and Services Alliance and manager of applied research at the Johannesburg Center for Software Engineering in South Africa, wrote that people will use multiple devices. “There are likely to be two distinct types of hand-held device—the mobile phone and the mobile PDA,” he commented. “The phone will be the instrument that enables the less economically empowered people to communicate by voice and text and to perform basic financial and government transactions. The PDA will offer the full range of communications and computing facilities, including TV, GPS, and video camera. Using improved solar technology, battery life will be significantly extended and offices, hotels, and other venues will provide free plasma screens for those who wish to access a larger image than the one offered on the device.”

Well-known economist and technology expert Hal Varian, of Google and the University of California-Berkeley, responded, “The big problem with the cell phone is the UI [user interface], particularly on the data side. We are waiting for a breakthrough.”

Fabrice Florin, the executive director of, a nonprofit social news network, wrote, “While I agree that the mobile phone will play a growing role as a low-cost computing platform, I disagree that it will be the ‘primary Internet connection and the only one for a majority of the people across the world.’ Other computing platforms and connectivity options will become widely available by then, such as cheap computers (or wall-based computing environments) with landline or comparable broadband connections. I predict that these faster connections and larger-screen platforms will be more affordable and effective from a productivity standpoint than small and slow mobile platforms.”

One Laptop Per Child Is Seen as Limited

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is a large-scale US-based project to provide affordable, practical computing and Internet capabilities to people in underserved communities around the world. The effort has brought together people from the technology industry, non-governmental organizations, and governments in the process of designing, manufacturing, and distributing these tools.

The Future of the Internet III survey was distributed at about the same time the OLPC computers became available; they have come under some criticism in the popular media, and they met some criticism from survey participants. Scott Smith wrote, “OLPC-style efforts are already beginning to fragment at the start of 2008 even before the actual OLPC initiative gains any real ground.” Seth Finkelstein wrote, “One Laptop Per Child is a classic ‘ugly American’-style project.”

Charles Ess, an online culture and ethics researcher from Drury University and a leader of the Association of Internet Researchers, commented, “The One Laptop Per Child initiative is foundering not so much on issues of economics, but more on issues of culture. Most of the non-Western ‘targets’ for the initiative use languages that are not easily captured through the use of the standard Roman keyboard. More broadly, the literacy required to manipulate most computer-based communications technologies and venues is not to be taken for granted among all populations and demographic groups—certainly not within the US and Western Europe, much less through other cultures in which orality still predominates (e.g., indigenous peoples). For that, mobile phones present a relatively straightforward interface—and talking, for most people at least, is easy! In short, talking via a phone is far more universally realizable than presuming everyone will be able and willing to communicate via a Roman keyboard and an expensive computer.”

Some Say 2020 Will Offer a New Paradigm

Some survey participants said this scenario as written is shortsighted and we will have moved into a different communications environment. “A new technology will blow all of this away,” wrote one anonymous respondent, and another wrote, “Another ‘killer app’ will emerge before 2020 that will change everything; communication will not achieve stability in the 21st century.”

Josh Quittner, executive editor of Fortune Magazine and longtime technology journalist and editor, wrote, “The notion of a ‘mobile telephone’ in 2020 is quaint. Telephones in 2020 will be archaic, relics of a bygone era—like transistor radios are today. Telephony, which will be entirely IP-based by then, will be a standard communications chip on many devices. We’ll probably carry some kind of screen-based reading device that will perform this function, though I assume when we want to communicate verbally, we’ll do so through a tiny, earplug-based device.”

Mike Treder, executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and an expert on the social implications of emerging technologies, responded, “It shows a lack of imagination to assume that mobile phones as we know them today will still exist in 2020. While I agree that desktop computers will no longer be the standard interface for Internet connection by then, it seems far more probable to me that some form of ubiquitous wireless communication that goes beyond today’s mobile phones will have taken over.”

Hamish MacEwan, a consultant at Open ICT in New Zealand, enthusiastically sees an edges-oriented future.  “The mobile Internet will dominate usage, but the device will be very different in 13 years from our concept of a ‘mobile phone,’” he explained. “So will the providers of connectivity, and another group will provide the services and content. Universal standards will not control access, already WiMax and other non-proprietary standards are being deployed in competition, and combination, with the legacy integrated solution required in the cellular environment… Does your scenario imagine or imply that the legacy dominance of vertically integrated telecommunications services will return? If so, you are very wrong. Operators no longer define the service or the future; the edge, the customer, is now in charge. While we may temporarily embrace or endure the closed proprietary model, with an operator elite, the trend is towards decentralisation, toward control by the edge, with devices that will utilise whatever connectivity is available in a transparent and open mode. As Feynman and Rangaswami, and others have explained, there is plenty of room at the bottom.”

And Jonathan Dube, president of the Online News Association, director of digital media at CBC News, and publisher of CyberJournalist, net, wrote, “It’s highly unlikely that telephony will be offered under a set of universal standards and protocols accepted by most operators internationally. More likely, telephony will merge with Internet technology and the two will fuse, so that everyone who is using a mobile phone will always be online and everyone who is online can easily make connections via voice and video. Who knows, maybe by then we’ll be too busy running from our robot overlords to spend much time on our mobile phones.”