The digital mobile phone comes of age

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By Dr. Tim Kelley In July 2012, the digital mobile phone celebrates its 21st birthday. Of course wireless technology is much older, dating to the turn of the 20th century, and analogue cellular mobile phones — so called first-generation (1G) phones — were already around in July 1991 when the Finnish operator, Radiolinja, opened the world?s first commercial digital mobile service. But there are good reasons to celebrate the coming of age of the mobile phone and, heck, everyone likes a party. Like other 21-year-olds, it?s time for the mobile phone to start taking responsibility and be put to work. The mobile phone of 2012 is certainly more capable than ever before, with the processing power of a decent computer and the ability to learn and adapt by downloading applications. More than 30 billion applications, or ?apps?, were downloaded onto mobile phones around the world in 2011. Most of them are intended to entertain and educate, but increasingly the apps that are downloaded transform the phone into a working device, whether as a wallet, a navigational aid or a price comparison tool. A new report by the World Bank and infoDev ? Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile ? shows how mobile phones are being put to work in developing countries, in areas such as agriculture, health and financial services, and how phones are bringing governments and citizens closer together. The report also explores how mobile phones are encouraging entrepreneurship as well as facilitating processes of job search. By early 2012, there were more than six billion mobile subscriptions in use around the world (pre-paid and post-paid), providing access for more than three-quarters of the world?s inhabitants. Ownership of multiple subscriptions is becoming increasingly common, suggesting that their number will soon exceed that of the human population. Just over a quarter of the new mobile phones sold during 2011 would qualify as a ?smartphone,? having the ability to browse the web, to send and receive emails and process data. The sub-$100 smartphone arrived on the market a lot earlier than the much-heralded US$100 laptop and worldwide there are now two smartphones or tablet computers sold for each personal computer (PC) or laptop (see chart). They are increasingly substitutable for PCs in terms of their functionality. But with the rise of the ?app economy,? it?s not so much about the phone or the PC, but how those devices are used that matters. The World Bank Group is increasingly working with its clients to expand the use of mobile phones as tools in development projects ? for instance for data collection and analysis, for effecting conditional cash transfers or as a mechanism for delivering healthcare advice. As mobile broadband services become more common, and cheaper, smartphones are already the most common device for accessing broadband networks. Governments will need to make more bandwidth available for mobile broadband use to cope with the impending data deluge which threatens to swamp mobile broadband networks. But such growing pains will soon be forgotten as the frustrations of youth if, as expected, the mobile phone matures into a comfortable middle age. The author manages the analytical work program on ICT for Development which is shared between the World Bank’s ICT Sector Unit and infoDev. This blog entry originally appeared here. ]]>

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