The smartphone is probably the most underestimated digital gadget ever. Not because of people’s otherwise great track record of properly forecasting the often huge impact of new technology on the world. It is not so great. But because the smartphone still is widely considered just a luxury good; a mobile version of the PC, allowing people to do what they also could do on their PC, just on the go, on a smaller screen, with certain limitations and added flexibility, personalization and convenience.
It is true that the smartphone enables us to perform many of the tasks that we previously only could do when sitting at our Desktop PC and notebooks.
But the big deal about smartphones is that they let us do so much more. Tasks that have not been imaginable in a pre-smartphone world. These are the actual superpowers of smartphones. Superpowers with dramatic, life-altering consequences.
Below I tried to compile a list of examples to prove this point. Try to do any of this without utilizing smartphones.
- Refugees from war areas use smartphone GPS and maps to cross continents on their own, sharing the best routes with each other, and thus even being able to occasionally avoid having to use the services of smugglers (source).
- People who walk alone can request a “virtual” companion through an app to walk with them, increasing the perceived feeling of safety and ensuring that in case of an actual emergency, quick help is available (source).
- Blind people can make use of a smartphone app that allows them to request visual help from volunteers who also have the app on their phone (source).
- During large-scale protests, specific messaging apps connect smartphones directly with each other, circumventing the Internet and thus any attempt to censor communication. These kind of mesh networks could theoretically allow the urban populations around the globe to interact with each other wherever they go without the need for an active Internet connection (source).
- Aid workers and and doctors use smartphones with attached dongles to quickly diagnose infectious diseases. In a few years, the general public might be able to skip some expensive and time-consuming visits to physicians (source).
- Tens of millions of people use their smartphone as their bank. Unlike in developed markets in which banking customers simply access their banks mobile interface/app (which they also could reach from their PC), services such as Kenya’s M-Pesa are part of the mobile infrastructure and work exclusively through text messaging (source).
- Millions of people around the world use smartphones for on-demand transportation. No matter what one thinks of Uber, the possibility to connect vehicles with passengers (or shipments, for that matter) any time, increasingly anywhere, based on actual demand, utilizing nothing but a mobile device, is groundbreaking and will change public transport, too.
- Too much UV radiation is bad for the skin and can cause cancer. But thanks to smartphones, outdoor enthusiasts are now able to get realtime data about the level of UV radiation at their current location. A Swiss startup has created a sensor that measures UV radiation and sends the data to a smartphone app. This is just one of many cases in which smartphones can (and will) provide their owners with real-time data about environmental threats at their current location (source).
- Carsharing companies, bike sharing startups and smart lock companies enable smartphones to act as keys, opening up vast possibilities of new types of (sharing-based) services that benefit both companies as well as consumers. Unimaginable in a pre-smartphone era.
- Smartphone navigation apps such as Waze collect traffic data from millions of smartphone owners who drive cars, offering real-time and dynamic routing advises based on actual traffic. It is said that 10% of car owerns in Los Angeles use Waze. Apps like this can improve the quality of life in areas otherwise suffering from constant congestion (source).
- An increasing number of cities and municipalities rely on specific smartphone apps to allow citizens to report and document problems, defects and vandalism right from the locations where they are being encountered (source).
What makes the mobile revolution so massive are all the things you could not do before smartphones. Their sheer versatility makes smartphones become essential, whereas the home PC is being downgraded from “essential” to “luxury good”.