I’m not normally a superstitious person, but sometimes the omens and portents pile up too high to ignore. Recently, I was in Camden Market browsing a stall that sells African artefacts, and I bought a beautiful Masai club, or knobkerrie, made of ebony. The very next night on BBC News 24, they were having a “geek week” in which one of their reporters travelled around Kenya reporting on the impact of the mobile phone.
It seems the mobile phone has caught on in Africa in a quite extraordinary way, so that even people on very low incomes will save to get one. A large part of the reason is that the mobile provides a way of leapfrogging the corrupt layer of middle-men and bureaucrats who leech on the economy and hinder progress. Interviewee after interviewee described how they’d started a successful business by working directly with their remote customers over their mobile.
For example, a coffee farmer was on his mobile to a buyer in Nairobi to monitor prices hour-by-hour. The implication was that telecoms technology may allow Africa, and other developing nations, to completely skip over a whole stage of infrastructure development, the stage at which the kleptocrats embezzle the aid funds that should have been used to build roads and railways. I have my doubts about that: you can certainly get a coffee price over the phone, but you can’t deliver the beans that way.
Anyway, our reporter next asked a local pundit whether there’s anywhere in Kenya without mobile coverage, and she suggested perhaps the Great Rift Valley. So off he trotted over the dusty plain and arrived among a picturesque group of Masai cattle herders in traditional dress (although regrettably without any clubs visible). He asked a magnificent matriarch if they could get a mobile signal there and she said of course we can, and snapped her fingers for the mobile from one of her attendants. “How many Masai in your village own mobiles?” he asked. Around one in three was her estimate. Did she think it would change their way of life? Oh no, they would continue to live by their cattle and their traditions – the mobile just made it easier and safer. A far sounder lesson in the rational appraisal of technology impact there.
Only a day or two later, Apple not only released details about its stunning iPhone, but announced it was dropping the “Computer” from its name, to become simply Apple Inc from now on. Are you starting to get the feeling that we’ve just hopped eras yet? I’ve even entered this new era myself by finally getting off the fence to try out a smartphone – the Palm Treo 680 – with wholly satisfactory results so far.
I’ll admit that I grumped about Palm in a recent column, but in my defence the few millimetres it’s shaved off the 680 make it look altogether less offensive and, rather more importantly, it works very well indeed. I recently lost my Sony CLIÉ and the Treo has seamlessly replaced it, running all the same Palm apps perfectly. Most important of all, because of Palm OS and the tiny but excellent QWERTY keyboard, I can actually use it, unlike ordinary mobiles. The only downside is getting used to feeble battery life.
I’m finally starting to believe that the tension that currently exists between the computing and telecoms worlds really might eventually be resolved in favour of phone technology rather than by full convergence.
It’s far from impossible to imagine the PC shrinking to become just a box on the wall, not unlike an electricity meter or a broadband router, with all user interaction taking place through a handheld device that communicates with it via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and isn’t constrained to run any desktop OS. That’s what makes the current moves at Apple so important – since the astounding success of the iPod, Apple has moved into the position of chief arbiter of interface standards, with far more credibility than Microsoft.