A Mobile Species

Has the smartphone become a basic human right?

In a growing number of countries, smartphones are not just a convenience, but an expectation. They’ve moved beyond critical mass, becoming a part of the inner workings of society. Small and large businesses, financial institutions and municipalities have developed infrastructures around not just an Internet-connected populous but also smartphone-touting ones.

It’s an amazing thing. In less than a decade — half a generation — the smartphone has evolved to become a near necessity in developed economies as well as many developing ones. And mobile data plans have become a sort of connecting tissue. The slightest disruption to service, such as the recent outage experienced by Three in the UK, immediately causes social media to light up with complaints as people find they can’t make payments, access their bank accounts, stream music and more.

This is underlined in Nordic countries, where riding public transport in many municipalities requires a smartphone to buy a ticket. These places have moved from cash to cards to connectivity for a simple bus ride. Smartphones in Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway are almost a prerequisite to get from place to place, and it goes beyond that. From bank authentication to point-of-sale payments, if you’re not an Android or iOS user, you’re an awkward outsider.

Just as the automobile transformed countries’ economies, connecting populations with a network of highways and roads starting a century ago, the huge number of smartphone users has become an agent, driving a new type of app-based economic development.

For example, in India, smartphones are at the core of a technological transformation. For hundreds of millions of young Indians, a smartphone offers their first experience of a camera, computer, television, music player, video game, e-reader and Internet access, all rolled into one. The smartphone compresses a timeline of technological advances that in the West took centuries — from the invention of letterpress printing to the advent of photography, radio, television, the personal computer and the modem — into just a few years.

There’s been an explosion in smartphone usage in India thanks to low-cost good-value devices, along with some of the world’s lowest mobile data prices. For example, services like WhatsApp have allowed Indians to leapfrog e-mail. In India, one’s identity is often tethered to a mobile number. For Indian smartphone users, social media apps are wildly popular, and those still living without them are on the fringes of society. Smartphones have also become a necessity for entertainment, with mobile gaming and streaming services like Hotstar and Netflix becoming mainstays.

Indians binge on apps. From ordering a taxi ride to watching live television, from finding a relationship to managing a bank account, a growing number of Indians now depend on smartphone apps to get through life. Yet it’s worth pointing out that still only around a third of the Indian population has a smartphone. That number is growing, but still well behind the proportion in developed nations, meaning countries such as India are missing out on the potential, and millions upon millions of people are missing out on many modern conveniences. This includes instant access to information needed to develop skills for work and life.

Smartphone use will continue to grow and continue to shape the political, social and economic landscape and fortunes of people around the world. We’re happy to see the prices of hardware and connectivity come down, and hope more will be done in the coming year to spread access to vital tools. We recognize that what was a luxury item just a few years ago is now a near necessity.