Having a smartphone in your pocket doesn't make you smarter, but it could give you an economic and social advantage over someone who doesn't have one -- and when you consider that revolutions like the Arab Spring have been carried out with the aid of smartphones, you could argue that putting them in the hands of as many people as possible has become a moral imperative.
Speaking during the Mobile Loco conference at Mobile World Congress, Shelly Palmer, author of Digital Wisdom, Thought Leadership for a Connected World, suggested that people with smartphones were far better off than those without them. He called people with smartphones "exo-digitally enhanced humans" who can instantly find information. With a search tool like Google, you can enter an incorrect spelling, get the date wrong, make all kinds of errors, and still get at the information you want in seconds, he said. That gives you a huge advantage over someone who doesn't have that technology.
Palmer pointed out there has always been an economic divide among humans -- the haves and have-nots -- but with mobile technology, the digital divide is even more pronounced.
If Palmer's right, we need to find a way to get smartphones into the hands of people who don't have them. I spoke to a Nigerian journalist the week after MWC at the CeBIT technology fair in Hannover, Germany, and asked whether people in his country were using smartphones and if they were the kind of differentiator Palmer suggested.
Many people in Nigeria have smartphones, he told me, but simply giving a person one of these devices doesn't make them educated. Simply having a smartphone is not an end unto itself; it's just a starting point. This goes back to something else Palmer said in his speech: "Technology is meaningless unless it changes the way we behave."
In an interesting CeBIT presentation, Susan Whiting from Nielsen pointed out that knowing the needs of emerging markets is critical. She said it would be unthinkable to sell a phone in African markets without two key features: a flashlight and an FM radio because these are vital requirements on this continent.
All of this underscores that we can't simply drop smartphones from airplanes and expect to change lives. But if we put smartphones in the hands of people who are hungry to have them, perhaps we can. Telefonica, the Spain-based provider, is one company that believes there is a huge market for smartphones in Latin America where younger people are currently using feature phones.
At MWC, ZTE introduced the ZTE Open running the Firefox mobile OS with the intention of putting smartphones into the hands of people who can't afford current models. Telefonica hopes to sell this phone, which by US standards is a fairly pedestrian device, for well under $100.
While people who have feature phones can sometimes access the Internet, it's usually not a very elegant experience. Smartphones change everything in that regard. Palmer pointed out that just as smartphones are better than feature phones or no phone, he believes wearable computers like Google Glass take mobile access to another level altogether.
"Now we have Google Glasses. Think about how different a human who had that kind of power is compared to someone who didn't," he said. "How much more powerful is he than someone who has no digital life?"
That's the big question facing us all as a society. Is it desirable for us to have people who have this power, this computer in our pockets or on our faces, while others don't have any access at all? How much better off will we be when we share this technology with as many people as possible?
Certainly there are negative sides to introducing such technology as we've seen all too often -- people speaking loudly in public places or ignoring the conversation and being anti-social as they stare at their smartphones. Before Google Glass even hits the mainstream, we're aware about the potential to record video surreptitiously.
Yet I believe the advantages of giving more people access to an entire world that might have otherwise been out of their reach far outweighs any negative social consequences having the devices might bring. When you can communicate across the world, get information in seconds, and share information with people instantly, that's a real differentiator -- and perhaps even a moral imperative.
What do you think?
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.