In the past five years we've grown accustomed to a fundamental shift in the nature of the online space. That is, online went from a place you accessed from your desktop, to a place you accessed from anywhere. And it all happened, of course, via the smartphone.
It's hard to believe that it's not yet six years since the launch of the iPhone. In that short time, mobile internet has transformed the way we shop, consume content, communicate with one another, navigate through our cities, monitor our health, manage our schedules - the list is endless. Now, the smartphone wars - the battle for control of the smartphone market - rage like a never-ending thunderstorm: witness the recent wall-to-wall coverage of the launch of Samsung's Galaxy S4.
So mobile internet has changed the way we live. But consider this fundamental fact: we're still closer to the beginning of the journey than the end. If on-the-go access to the global brain has transformed our lives already, consider how much more it will do so when everyone has a smartphone.
Now, key signs show that we're at the tipping point that will take us to that moment. The research firm Comscore say smartphone penetration in the US and Europe ticked over the crucial 50 per cent threshold in December 2012: for the first time ever in those regions, more people own a smartphone than do not.
But the movement is being fuelled by the staggering uptake of smartphones in emerging markets. In 2011 there were around 70 million active smartphones in China. Now, according to the research firm iiMedia, there are 330 million; that's more than the 320 million registered in the US. It's estimated that China will reach 500 million smartphone users by the end of this year. No wonder Apple is reputed to be working on a low-cost iPhone for China: a move that could further accelerate uptake across Asia, South America and Africa.
Meanwhile, the accountancy firm Deloitte says 2013 is the year when the smartphone becomes an everyday object: it forecasts that annual smartphone sales will tip over one billion for the first time ever this year. And the tech firm Cisco reports that smartphones will overtake PCs as the largest source of internet traffic in 2014.
What will the world look and feel like when everyone has a smartphone? Already, access to the network is handing vast empowerment to people in emerging markets who had no online access via a desktop. Hundreds of millions will gain access to information and educational materials that have remained out of their reach until now, driving personal fulfilment and vast economic growth.
But the difference will be one of quality, not only quantity, for smartphone users in the US, Europe and the UAE, too. The online space will become immeasurably richer thanks to the billions of new users who have gained access for the first time. YouTube content from every Chinese Tier VI city? You'll have it in your pocket. Twitter feeds from Africa to South America? All yours. And smartphone services - ranging from payment to maps to chat - will become more ubiquitous and more reliable.
The benefits of a truly global network are impossible to overstate. In the meantime, all you have to do (if you haven't already) is choose between Apple and Samsung.
David Mattin is the lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com
For more trends visit www.thenational.ae/trends
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