The American Cell Phone Gap

A few years back, I wrote and spoke a lot about the importance of the cell phone, and the potential it has to help deliver public services and provide information from government. A lot has changed in those few years, as documented in an illuminating article published recently in the NY Times.

While the U.S. continues its lust for more powerful, sleeker and functionally dubious devices, the rest of the world continues to leverage the power inherent in the ordinary cell phone. The cell phone is at the heart of digital life in other countries, and huge numbers of people have them (or soon will):

The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a trade group. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cellphone than the United Nations says have access to a clean toilet.

In the U.S., we continue to look to the build out of the broadband infrastructure as a way to connect those who remain unconnected. I can’t help but think (as I have for some time) that the effort to bring more people into the digital age would be enhanced by leveraging what many already have – an ordinary cell phone. There would be a number of advantages to such an approach – as noted in the NY Times article, cell phones are “cheap and shareable and easily repaired.” They also do not present the same learning curve as other digital devices, like laptops or netbooks.

So why isn’t the cell phone (and services like text messaging) as important in the U.S. as it is in other countries? I think part of the answer is that it hasn’t always been easy or efficient to build text messaging applications.

That’s changing – new services like Tropo and Twilio make it (if you’ll pardon the alliteration) trivial to build SMS apps. Certainly other services will soon follow suit, and more powerful tools for building sophisticated SMS and telephone apps will emerge.

As it continues to get easier to build more sophisticated applications, perhaps our use of these devices will change and become more aligned with the rest of the world.

As someone to whom the power of the ordinary cell phone is readily apparent, I sure hope so.