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What's driving the Internet revolution

Publication Date : 07-03-2014

 

It is hard to work up much excitement these days when you go into an electronic gadgets shop.

The latest smartphones do pretty much the same as last year's, give or take a few more pixels.

You know it's been a slow year when Bluetooth speakers take centre stage on the display shelves.

There's a new console war between the recently launched Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One?

I rest my case.

In contrast to the lack of exciting new gizmos for consumers, all the action in the tech world is taking place behind closed doors in corporate boardrooms and national agencies.

Social media giant Facebook buying instant messaging app WhatsApp for S$24 billion (US$18 billion) set the chatrooms alight with questions about whether it was too much to pay and what it will mean for the biggest social media platform.

When Microsoft appointed its new CEO, an engineer by training from within the company, people wondered if the software giant would head in a new direction.

Meanwhile, at the national level, there are even larger forces at work, quietly shaping the technological landscape of the future.

At last month's annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, China's state-owned equipment maker, ZTE, said the country was building its 4G telecom infrastructure at breakneck speed, and will have one million 4G base stations by the end of the year, up from the current 300,000.

4G is the latest technology enabling mobile phone users to access the Internet almost instantly.

European executives, on the other hand, lamented the slow pace of development on the continent, complaining about regulations that inhibit growth and the sluggish economic climate.

Closer to home, SingTel's CEO Chua Sock Koong got netizens worked up when she reportedly suggested at the Barcelona conference that regulators allow telecom carriers to charge Internet service providers such as WhatsApp and Facebook for using their networks.

SingTel later clarified that it was not planning to charge users of these services separately.

This has been a long-running issue, with telcos increasingly concerned about losing revenue to these tech companies who are in the same communication business but get away with not paying anything for the infrastructure.

It has been reported, for example, that mobile operators worldwide lost an estimated $41 billion last year to these social messaging services.

So, plenty of buzz in the tech world, billions of dollars are changing hands, and many issues are up in the air. What's the consumer to make of these developments, and how will our lives be affected in the years to come?

It can be a confusing place for many people who struggle to make sense of either the technology or the business models.

While no one can predict what the new landscape will look like, and where the next killer app will spring from, there are some constants that will define these changes. There are at least three worth highlighting.

First, there is no place where globalisation has had a greater impact than in Internet and communication technology.

It is truly one cyberworld: whatever happens in Silicon Valley in the United States is immediately felt in Pudong in Shanghai and Bangalore in India.

When Facebook bought WhatsApp, you can bet your last dollar that the values of all the successful Chinese tech companies such as Tencent, Baidu and Sina would have gone up in tandem.

So too that of the Japanese social media platform Line, which is owned by South Korea's Naver.

Globalisation's impact is accelerated in the tech world because the technical language, programming skills, even the culture of tech companies are more similar across national boundaries than they are in other industries.

Talent is also much more mobile in this sector.

It might have taken decades for Chinese or Korean car companies, for example, to catch up with their European counterparts, and they are still not there yet. It will take a much shorter time for them to do so in the Internet and mobile space. Indeed, in the case of smartphones, Samsung is already leading the pack.

This newspaper's Digital Life reported last week that Chinese phones such as the Redmi from Xiaomi are now hot in Singapore, not just because of their low prices but for design and useability.

Second, the need that this technology fulfils is insatiable.

It is the unrelenting desire for people everywhere to want to communicate and interact with one another.

That might seem obvious now but it wasn't too long ago that many, including some of the titans of the industry such as Microsoft, underestimated this huge appetite for human contact.

They did not see early enough the explosive growth of mobile phones, and paid the price for being late in the game. Nor did many foresee how the young especially have pioneered new ways to express themselves as part of their own social networks.

Whoever is able to tap into this seemingly boundless desire will reap the rewards in the coming years.

The third driver of change is a product of the first two.

The globalisation of technology and its ability to fulfil the desire of people to communicate with one another in ways never possible before will lead to much social, political and economic change.

Already we are seeing the results of this all over the world, including political upheavals in the Middle East and the social changes taking place in China, India and elsewhere, including Singapore.

Many worry about the speed of these changes and where they will lead to.

There is reason though to be optimistic. Yes, there is too much porn and bigotry in cyberspace, too much spam in e-mail and too many hackers out there trying to steal our personal data.

But there are a zillion other sites that promote all sorts of healthy activities, encourage the pursuit of knowledge and keep so many of us so well informed.

Think of the sites you have visited recently and the way you've used the World Wide Web and mobile phone.

If today's Internet world is a reflection of what the human race is capable of, there is more going for than against it.

It may be a confusing world, but it's an incredibly promising one.

 

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