Mobile computing will eat the world and change the menu

Web Summit talk by Benedict Evans showed just how revolutionary the smartphone is

Mobile phones will come to dominate and overwhelm other industries and precipitate a lot of very visible disruptions in how the world operates on the way. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Mobile phones will come to dominate and overwhelm other industries and precipitate a lot of very visible disruptions in how the world operates on the way. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

It need hardly be said that mobile computing has been the biggest advance in technology since the appearance of the personal computer in the 1980s, but even if you think you appreciate quite what a game-changer it is, you’re probably underestimating the impact it’s going to have in the coming years and decades.

That was the biggest lesson from the best talk of the Web Summit earlier in the month – amid the deluge of interviews, discussions, panels and promotional opportunities that filled up the schedule, one talk stood above all others for sheer insight into how our lives will be changed by technology.

It was delivered by renowned analyst Benedict Evans, and it was the latest version of his justly lauded presentation, provocatively called Mobile is Eating the World.

Evans, a cerebral English man who is a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, first delivered the presentation two years ago, and has refined and adapted the talk since then.

It’s a play on the famous maxim by his boss, technology entrepreneur and web pioneer Marc Andreessen, who coined the phrase “Software is eating the world”, diagnosing “a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swaths of the economy”.

Related to that shift, and fundamental to it, is the role of mobile computing, which, Evans points out, is an exponentially greater market than the traditional PC industry – by the end of the decade, 80 per cent of the world’s adult population will have a smartphone.

By 2019, 70 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa will be on 3G network connections. So, the addressable market for the technology industry will be, for the first time, everyone on Earth.

At the Web Summit, Evans delivered a new version of the talk, which significantly develops the argument, and which he expanded on in an essay on his blog last week titled “Mobile, ecosystems and the death of PCs.”

The premise is deceptively simple – where once we thought the “real” internet was available on a PC while smartphones offered a limited version of it, pretty soon that will become inverted, with smartphones offering a more versatile, full-featured suite of internet applications than a desktop or laptop can hope to provide. And with that inversion comes a whole new range of implications we have barely begun to consider.

Evans looks bookish and professorial – he delivers the presentation in rapid-fire, witty patter with a slight lisp, hands behind his back holding a surprisingly large clicker, moving through the slides in double-quick time, presumably to keep up with the conference’s strictly enforced time limits. The effect is dizzying, as revelation follows insight follows data point.

“The future always comes looking like a toy for rich hipsters that you can’t use for real work,” he says at one point, capturing the scepticism that often greets new technologies. “But the toy gets better and the work changes.”

This is a critical point – first the tools fit the job, then the job changes to fit the tools. That is one reason why Uber is the source of so much fascination for technologists and economists. As Evans puts it, “The old way of doing things reaches perfection just as it’s time to be replaced.”

As one model or ecosystem becomes obsolete, it is overtaken by the new model or ecosystem, which expands to an exponentially larger addressable market.

With the move to Android and iOS devices operating on increasingly efficient ARM chips, and the proliferation of commodity smartphone components throughout all sorts of devices and appliances, expect those changes to be far-reaching.

Evans uses an illuminating quote attributed to Carl Sagan, “It was easy to predict mass car ownership but hard to predict Walmart.”

Big-box retailers were a direct result of mass car ownership and related changes in urban living, but few who saw Henry Ford’s production line, for instance, would have confidently envisaged how it would ultimately lead to the disruption of the traditional retail business.

In another twist on that transformative chain of causality, consider the humble shipping container – as Evans points out, it first allowed for faster loading and unloading at docks, then led to significantly larger ships, and ultimately facilitated the move of much of the world’s supply chain to China. How many people could have seen that coming when first faced with a big steel box?

Similarly, the rise of mobile computing, however one defines it, is going to set off a chain of shifts and disruptions, transforming industries and economies in myriad unpredictable ways.

Mobile, Evans concludes, will “eat the world” in the sense that it will come to dominate and overwhelm other industries to the point that it becomes an invisible part of the fabric of our economies and of our lives. But before it reaches that point of invisibility, it will precipitate a lot of very visible disruptions in how the world operates.

Like few others, Evans manages to get past the easy predictions related to the mass adoption mobile computing, and ask what sort of unexpected consequences, what sort of Walmarts and Chinese supply chains, are we likely to see in the coming years and decades.

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