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How Will "Smart Mobs" Play Out?

Tech trend-spotter Howard Rheingold says these fluid, Net/cell-phone communities have still-unmet entrepreneurial promise.
Written by Robert D. Hof, Contributor

When it comes to spotting technology trends, writer Howard Rheingold, one of the e-commerce leaders on this year's BusinessWeek e.biz 25, somehow manages to be in the right place at the right time. He wrote about personal computers and the Internet years before they became fixtures in business and society.

Now, he's onto yet another trend that he thinks will be just as big: "smart mobs." In his November, 2002, book of the same name, he explained how this notion is emerging from the collision of mobile computing devices, including increasingly powerful cell phones and the Internet. It's a trend he says he first noticed in Tokyo in early 2000, when he saw people looking at their phones -- "thumbing messages" into them -- rather than talking on them. In a recent interview, he talks about his smart mobs concept and explores the perils and potential of this phenomenon with BusinessWeek Silicon Valley Bureau Chief Robert D. Hof. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:

Q: What are smart mobs?
A: They're people who use the Internet and the mobile telephone to organize collective action in the way that the Internet and the personal computer provided -- and to create new industries.

Q: Why do you call them smart "mobs"?
A: There's a dark side. The attacks of 9/11 wouldn't have been possible without cell phones or the Internet.

Q: In your recent world travels, have you noticed any new developments in the year since your Smart Mobs book has come out?
A: Half the people in Tokyo aren't looking at their telephones now. They're looking through their telephones. The picturephone thing is really becoming something of a way of life there. People are sharing what's going on in their life.

I ran into a Japanese geek who showed me his videophone. It's pretty interesting to see a little telephone that can record and transmit video. It's definitely a jump from just taking a still picture.

Here in the U.S., we haven't really gotten started on videophones. The U.S. technology culture and leadership that we had with the PC and the Internet is not true with mobile communications technologies. It has not pervaded the culture the way it has in other parts of the world.

Q: Are you finding any business applications for smart mobs yet?
A: In 1978 and 1979, when the PC surfaced, I remember people saying, "This is really interesting, but I think I'll just stick to putting my recipes on three-by-five cards." There weren't obvious business applications until people started inventing them. The potential was there.

Remember the Internet with the 1,200-baud modem and the text interface? It was really hard to envision Amazon.com or Yahoo! at that stage. I think that's where we are now with this new medium.

What can you do when you've got a billion people walking around with computing devices connected at high speeds? I don't think we really have a clue to that. But there's huge technology potential and huge entrepreneurial potential.

The most extraordinary potential is that the people who couldn't have afforded PCs or the Internet are walking around barefoot talking on cell phones, sending text messages -- finding out about the spot labor market in their African village or which port is paying a better price for fish today. That's under the radar of the enterprises whose business is to sell to the middle classes of the world.

Q: So will the U.S. necessarily be the place where new enterprises based on this trend take root, or is it really lagging?
A: The assumption that it's going to come from Silicon Valley, or even America, may be looking in the wrong direction. This time, we may be seeing things come out of China or Brazil.

Q: What are the obstacles to entrepreneurs or businesses doing something with this idea?
A: People may not be able to use that opportunity to be active users who shape the medium, the way we could with the PC and the Internet, because of large companies promoting their own interests. Digital-rights-management plans, trusted-computing initiatives, the extension of copyright laws, and the restrictions on regulation of spectrum that are being pushed by the incumbent license holders are all limitations.

So far, the people the legislators are hearing from are the lobbyists. If a 15-year-old in São Paolo can't invent tomorrow's Google, we will all be impoverished because of it.

Also, the major enterprises that would be investing in new possibilities are exhausted. Telecommunications companies paid all this money for 3G [advanced, high-speed wireless] licenses all over the world, and then their stock prices collapsed. Their capital is severely diminished. At the same time, the venture capitalists are extraordinarily reluctant to put anything into new enterprises that come from the bottom up.

BusinessWeek Online originally published this article on 25 September 2003.

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