Why mobile phones are one key to the digital divide

Bobbi Newman tweeted a few days ago:

I whole heartedly, unequivocally disagree with this! Mobile access helps agencies break past digital divide http://bit.ly/bHTYGg

I responded by saying that I thought she was wrong, and that mobile was an effective way to bridge the gap. After a little back and forth on twitter, we decided to just duel it out here on our respective blogs, and she launched the first post just today, Why Mobile Phones are Not the Key to the Digital Divide.

Here’s the crux of what I see as her argument, from her blog post:

I agree with Jason, mobile technology is improving at a rapid pace. However, it is not on par with a computer with a high-speed internet connection. There are many things you still can not do with a mobile phone, even a smart phone. Are we really willing to say that this less robust point of access is acceptable for minorities and the economically challenged?

We must acknowledge that, while mobile access is better than no access, it is still not the equivalent of high-speed access from a computer. It is not acceptable for privileged, economically sound, techno savvy people to state that these two forms of access are the same.

The first thing I think is questionable is the assumption that mobile access isn’t (or rather, won’t be) just as good as that associated with a more traditional “computer” and broadband. What advantage does a computer give that a mobile doesn’t?

  • Connection speed? That’s coming…LTE gives 100+ meg connections via cell signal.
  • Interface (keyboard + screen)? That’s just a bias based on tradition…has nothing to do with actual use. In fact, I will argue that mobile interfaces are actually BETTER than keyboard/mouse for many, many, many things, as the last 3 years of touchscreen UI has shown us.
  • Processing power? While desktops provide a bit better operation-per-dollar valuation, no one except  real geeks buy their systems based on that. Modern mobiles are many times more powerful than the desktops of just a few years ago…they easily handle 99% of the computing tasks that people actually do (word processing, browsing the web, etc). Hell, the iPhone4 does video editing!

I believe strongly that the idea that a desktop is somehow superior to a mobile phone for Internet access is an accident of the time in which we live and the historical nature of the rise of computing. One can easily imagine that 10 years from now the then-digital-natives will look aghast at the desktops of the past. “What do you mean, you had to sit at a desk to use a computer? You pushed actual buttons? What’s a mouse?” I think Douglas Adams said it best (in this, among other things):

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

There are examples, even today, of people who prefer mobile access to the Internet to using a desktop: the entire country of Japan, for instance. Many of them could easily afford desktops, but overwhelmingly they choose mobile phones as the mechanism they use for accessing the Internet.

So unless there are some actual things that can be pointed out as to why Mobile access is second-class (and I swear, if someone says Flash, I quit)….I’m calling this cultural and historic bias.


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