There are 2 billion people around the world using smartphones that have an internet connection and a touchscreen or something similar as an interface. By the end of the decade that number looks set to double to just over 4 billion, according to Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz, a venture-capital firm. By 2020, something like 80% of adults will own a smartphone connected to this remarkable global resource.
Like the book, the clock and the internal combustion engine before it, the smartphone is changing the way people relate to each other and the world around them. By making the online world more relevant, and more applicable, to every task from getting from A to B to finding a date to watching over a child to checking the thermostat it is adding all sorts of convenience.
The smartphone has become information technology’s key product. It generates the most profits; it attracts the most capital and the brightest brains.
Apple’s App Store and Google Play, the equivalent for the Android operating system—which runs on 82% of the world’s smartphones, as opposed to Apple’s 15%—now offer users more than 3m apps. Apple alone sold apps worth more than $14 billion in 2014. Phones which start off identical—much more so, say, than cars—can thus be customised to meet an almost infinite range of needs and enthusiasms. Cry Translator purports to interpret your baby’s mood; RunPee tells you when best to take a toilet break in any film (and fills you in on what you missed).
The most famous app-based company, Uber, is valued at $41 billion because of the success it has had in turning the smartphone into a remote control for taxis. The smartphone gives the company’s two categories of user—drivers and passengers—the control that they need. And it gives the company’s algorithms the data they need, from car positions to customer feedback.
The new businesses that smartphones and apps allow are not merely extending the internet; they are also reshaping it in a way that some of its current denizens may find hard to live with. One reason Google got itself into the smartphone world with the acquisition and development of Android was to adapt its business to a world of smartphones dominated by another company. When people access the internet with apps on a phone, rather than with a browser on a PC, they experience it differently. The internet looks a lot less like a set of connected pages, and that makes a business that depends on helping people find the page they want—and seeing ads in the process—look less compelling. Smartphone users mostly buy things through apps, not through searches or ads.
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