Arnold Kling  

How Will I Rejoin the Developed World?

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MIT Technology Review reports,


In 2010 consumers bought more than 300 million smart phones--devices that include complete operating systems, and for which advanced software can be written--plus nearly 18 million tablet computers. (Meanwhile, more than 1.1 billion simpler phone handsets with text delivery capacity reached consumers around the world, mainly in poor countries.) "Every person on earth will be carrying a smart phone before long, and that's going to be making a lot of changes to everybody's life," says Monica Lam, a computer scientist at Stanford who specializes in mobile-computing research.

As I said at the KC bloggers forum, I still have one of those third-world phones, that only does phone calls and text messages. My point was that I am not buying into Tyler's stagnation hypothesis. He would say that "the future is here, and it turned out to be disappointing." I'm more with William Gibson, "the future is here, it's just not very evenly distributed."

The question everyone should be asking is, what will Arnold Kling buy when he rejoins the developed world? The answer will tell you the direction of technology and the future of entire industries. My thoughts are below the fold.

1. I can afford a smart phone and a tablet computer. The costs that concern me are (a) the infamous "data plan" and (b) learning a new user interface. The main potential benefits are....not clear enough to make me want to go up the learning curve.

2. I favor cloud storage over local storage. If I were to buy songs, for example, I would rather have them stored on a server so that I can access them on any device and not have to worry about transferring them from one device to another when the first device is lost, broken, or obsolete. I like Gmail because I do not need to worry about using "my" computer for email.

3. I like a real keyboard. I write a lot.

4. I like a large screen with large type. I am well over forty.

5. I once wrote that "the last mile will be wireless." I could go that way now. We used to justify our land line because it had separate power for when the electricity goes out, but now that is not true with fiber. All we get for cable is TV, which I could do without. Some folks in our household watch TV and so they like the cable. But I'm ready to sever all cable connections and go with cell service or Wi-Max. The Negroponte Switch says that we want wires to carry rich media, but I don't value rich media.

6. I also wrote (ten years ago!) that the ultimate interface would be a headset. You wear goggles that can show you any combination of the world in front of you and a world projected on a screen. You wear earphones that can give you any combination of the conversation near you or someone you would like to speak with long distance. More speculatively, your mouthpiece allows you to issue instructions, so you do away with pointing devices and gestures. Maybe you can even dictate more efficiently than you can type (that would be unlikely in my case). Consider that if you had this sort of headset, with high-speed wireless communication and lots of cloud storage, you could have all the functionality of today's computers and phones--even more.

7. I like to think that if something appeals to me, then it will pass the market test and continue to be supported. But I think a lot of people worry, perhaps rightly, about investing in consumer devices that are based on technology that becomes orphaned.

Steve Jobs is able to overcome that. So his ability to produce a hit product is kind of self-fulfilling. People know that his products will be good enough that people will want them, and this makes people feel secure about buying them. Bill Gates no longer has that going for him. Google could have it, but they need to get the Chrome/Android thing sorted out. Tech Review suggested that the Motorola Atrix 4G hybrid laptop/phone is nifty but then I looked up reviews on CNET, where the guy who reviewed the phone part loved Android and the guy who reviewed the laptop could not understand why they did not use Chrome. I'll bet that some rather uncivil discussions are taking place at Google headquarters these days about that issue.

8. I think I would buy a tablet computer (with a keyboard, in my case) before I would buy a smart phone. I'm willing to carry a totebag or wear a backpack in order to have it handy. For situations where I do not want to carry a tablet, I think I would be happy with earplugs and a mouthpiece, and whatever intelligence you can deliver to that via the cloud. So if I were inside those uncivil meetings at Google, I would be questioning the long-term value of Android and instead arguing for Chrome and for developing interfaces between the cloud and headsets.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Mike writes:

The household (well, everybody but me) recently upgraded to smart phones. I kind of like this little thing that I carry that I can use as a phone or a texting device. It's a much smaller package than what the rest of the household carries. Also, since I never answer it, a battery charge can last over a week.

Tablets? Meh.

We disconnected the satellite last year. Only thing I have missed is the Stanley Cup tournament. Our entertainment now comes through the mail or the internet via Netflix.

PrometheeFeu writes:

On your point 6, there are still technological and social issues with this. With current technologies, a wearable computer is going to be very bulky and the googles will make it impossible for people to see your eyes making social interactions quite awkward. As a hacker (the clever computer user kind as opposed to the malicious jerk kind) I am actually thinking seriously of obtaining such a setup because I can get "geek-creds" from it. For most people, it's probably too negative of a fashion statement. But when they can get the screen on transparent glasses, I'm sure people will go for it. Voice commands are unfortunately very imprecise. Also, there are serious social/privacy issues since anyone nearby you would forcibly hear what you are doing.

Your comments on Android vs Chrome don't make much sense to me as they have different purposes. Android is your OS for high-mobility devices. It's optimized for that and it does it very well. (PS, you can actually store just about everything in the cloud and pull it on your android device. Songs are a different issue as the services that offer storing your songs in the cloud are the subject of constant legal attacks by the music industry.) Chrome OS is basically an attempt at resurrecting netbooks. The idea is that you have a laptop with which you do nothing (or almost nothing) outside the web. That would be quite poor for a high mobility device because the web is very slow compared to local applications.

I first worked as a computer programmer in 1978. Like you, I have a third world cellphone, though I use both a Mac and a PC. I never bought anything on eBay or Craigslist. I do not have a Facebook account. (I do have one on LinkedIn.) On the other hand, I worked two space shuttle launches. I spent two years programming industrial robots. As you noted from Gibson, the future is not evenly distributed. Was the Renaissance?

In 1200 BCE cows and wheat were money. In 600 BCE coins were invented. By 1200 CE bankers had abstract money of account. Today, we have derivatives. You can still trade cows for wheat. In The Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs pointed out, contrary to Schumpeter, that old forms are seldom destroyed. They only change, morph, evolve, merge and re-emerge.

Today's iPad and iPod are only the Zenith TurboSport 286 and Newton. HDTV is only just television.

A surprisingly few years from now millions of people will be connected by organic implants. Whether you are one of them is a personal choice, not social destiny. What they share will be achingly common... except that some artists, scientists, poets, and musicians will be grateful for a new age that no longer requires sending paper by sailing ship.

Noah Yetter writes:

Just buy a damn smartphone already. In 3 months you won't know how you lived without it. The interfaces are trivially easy to use, especially Apple's. Screen and print size don't matter because you can hold it as close to your eyes as needed. Surely you can afford $20-$35 a month for a data plan (I mean, you live in Maryland right?).

FYI, Android handsets can play music stored on Amazon's MP3 Cloud storage thing that just came out, since you specifically mentioned that.

kebko writes:

Ditto, Noah. The consumer surplus from the thousands of free apps will easily be worth the price of the plan.
An example of small ways it has changed our lives:
We were driving through rural Colorado & needed to stop to eat, where normally we'd be tempted to eat fast food just to be safe. My wife used the phone to find a local restaurant that had good reviews & then used the phone to tell me how to get there. As I drove up to the assumed location, I asked, "Is this the place?" She held up her phone, which had a picture that was identical to the view through my windshield. We parked & had a wonderful meal.

matt writes:

We all have tech we skip over, but don't discount the benefits of being able to look stuff up on the go. I seriously can't remember how I managed to travel before smart phones. For me having unlimited maps, and unlimited guide books which weight less than 5 ounces has been a godsend. Being able to show someone a confirmation email, has gotten me out of way too many customer service nightmares. Showing people that no, your website says the just the opposite of what you are saying now has been similarly helpful.

My typical smart phone use case, lets check our flight status, we are delayed 3 hours. Ok I am in city x for 3 more hours, lets get some food, hmmm where does tyler cowen say to here, lets look it up.

Just emailing reminders to myself is helpful enough. I could write stuff down or bring a pad, but typically the wife will email me a grocery list, and I will have it on my phone. Or I will have someplace to go, and have emails with directions and names, I could print them out, but then I am carrying more stuff. Also if its in my email I know I don't need to bother. What is my confirmation number, I can find out, give me 1 second, fumbling through paper takes as long.

Many of my family members held out on the smart phone, once they relented though, none have regretted switching. This actually surprises me, but it probably shouldn't.

JLonsdale writes:

The answer: Just get a smart phone. ASAP. As Noah said above, they are trivially easy to use, especially the Iphone. Right now you are letting the search for perfect be the excuse you are using to not try the really good.

I went from blackberry to flip phone to Iphone. There is a reason the Iphone is so successful in the market and it isn't just because people know it will be supported going forward. The apps are really easy to use, there are a lot of them and you will be surprised at how useful they are in your everyday life.

After you've had it or another smart phone for a year or two you can twiddle your thumbs thinking about what your best phone choice might be before you make the big jump of getting another two year contract. The cost of waiting will be lower when you already have a smart phone. Right now you are passing up too much utility.

Various writes:

Well I agree more with Tyler than you Arnold, but perhaps for reasons different from what Tyler suggested. I agree with you that productivity growth is tremendous, especially in the area of telecom and computers. The productivity enhancements are especially strong for smaller businesses that have not been early adopters. But on the otherhand we have a potential sovereign debt overhang problem. To analogize, I would say the U.S. economy is similar to a good tech company, with a strong and upcoming product line. But....it is also saddled with some very large pension obligations from a laggard business. How these countervailing factors reconcile long-term is a mystery to me.

Iván writes:

Well, if I didnt had my smartphone just now, how could I be reading and commenting on economic blogs, now that class was canceled? Or when I am commuting back home? Or who will download your podcast when I am tired to read and would rather listen to that program I want to hear, when I want to?
Who will record my evernotes? Or who will carry the books/papers/logs/notes/ that are now on a pad? Who will give me free mailing and international communication? Who will be my cheap but handy camera? Or my gps when I get lost? Or just suggest me something I am looking for around my area? Wo will store all of my contacts in my pocket or my schedule without me having to carry or rewrite them when the year is over? you never know when someone's phone might come in handy.

Seriously, I can make you 500 ,ore questions but then I wont be able to read so many of the great pieces your colleagues are throwing at us every other minute.

Some people already got their place, so they don't really need to re adapt to stuff. Old habits die hard, but some of us really have no choice

Tom Crispin writes:

I have no cellphone, nor other portable computing device. My first programming job was in 1966 and I have worked mostly continuously in the industry since, joning the PC segment in 1977.

Seriously: why do I want a phone? Do I need more interruptions? I neither need nor want an app to maintain my calendar and schedule. Music I carry around in my head. And I already spend too much time on the 'net or in cloud space.

Implants? Maybe. Nanobots for life extension? I want to be first in line.

ajb writes:

I got a smartphone and liked it but because of travel, I shut off the data service and web for the last few months. Guess what? I haven't missed it. I suspect Arnold is right. Stick to the old smaller phone till you know what you want and till prices and web service improve.

Foobarista writes:

On the one hand, I'm also something of a Luddite in terms of personal electronics - frankly, I find the idea of needing to be "always on" rather revolting. The only reason I got a cellphone to begin with was I was working at a mobile-phone startup and my boss insisted (and paid for it). I still have one with only voice and simple SMS.

On the other hand, I met my wife on the Internet (in 1998), I've been using Internet and proto-Internet apps since the early 1980s, and have had "real" Internet access continuously since 1984. I also developed embedded-device software that runs in over a billion devices worldwide (and a couple offworld). So, I'm not sure where I fit in here :)

Colin Fraser writes:

Get an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard.

Kneil writes:

This is your chance to leap ahead if the rest of your family. With a free phone number from Google, a cheap or free app and a bluetooth headset you can turn a tablet into a phone with unlimited minutes and text while only paying the $25-35 for data.

BobRoberts writes:

Kling,

I have an ordinary flip phone similar to the one you describe; $12 a month and it does everything I need just fine. I also have an iPod touch. It's effectively an iPhone, minus the brutal monthly fees. I can use it anywhere there is WiFi, which is most of the places I go. The combination is the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

I think the "data anytime anywhere" concept isn't as great as folks make it out to be. I'm a college student, and as I'm sure you've noticed, a lot of folks get so focused on their phones at times that they forget that there are people around them that they can interact with, too.

If you're talking about utility, how about the utility of the $1,000 you'll save by not getting a data plan and expensive phone and sticking with one that calls and text messages only? I'm not sure that your quality of life improves by an equivalent amount.

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