What if, globally speaking, the iPad is not the next big thing? What if the next big thing is small, cheap and not American?
From Brazil to India to South Korea and even Afghanistan, people are seeking work via text message; borrowing, lending, and receiving salaries on cellphones; employing their phones as flashlights, televisions and radios.
And many do all this for peanuts. In India, Reliance Communications sells handsets for less than $25, with one-cent-a-minute phone calls across India and one-cent text messages and no monthly charge — while earning fat profits.
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Not for the first time, America and much of the world are moving in different ways. America’s innovators, building for an ever-expanding bandwidth network, are spiraling toward fancier, costlier, more network-hungry and status-giving devices; meanwhile, their counterparts in developing nations are innovating to find ever more uses for cheap, basic cellphones.
And because it reaches so many people, because it is always with you, because it is cheap and sharable and easily repaired, the cellphone has opened a new frontier of global innovation.
Babajob, in Bangalore, India, and Souktel, in the Palestinian territories, offer job-hunting services via text message. Souktel allows users without Internet or fancy phones to register by texting information about themselves. A user who then texts in “match me” will receive a listing of jobs suitable to her, including phone numbers to dial.
In Africa, the cellphone is giving birth to a new paradigm in money. Plastic cards have become the reigning instruments of payment in the West, but projects like PesaPal and M-Pesa in Kenya are working to make the cellphone the hub of personal finance. M-Pesa lets you convert cash into cellphone money at your local grocer, and this money can instantly be wired to anyone with a phone.
All of which suggests the presence of an innovation gap between the world’s richest societies and the poorest — not in device design so much as in usage. And there is a question about whether the United States, which gained so much from the Internet revolution, will similarly profit from the entry of billions more people from the developing world into a massive worldwide middle class — consumers now but not yet rich, with a simple cellphone and a less-is-more sensibility.