Disruptive Technologies: Mobile Internet

By: The FHE Team

Mobile internet technology allows access to the World Wide Web through portable, handheld devices. These versatile gadgets are able to connect to the Internet to download a myriad of applications capable of delivering an enormous wealth of services.  Many of these apps enrich mobile devices with novel capabilities that set them apart from simpler phones and even personal computers – location-based services, such as real-time shopping tips or directions, and constant online social connectivity are a few examples.

The devices themselves run the spectrum from simple mobile phones with basic browsing capabilities, to powerful smartphones and tablets with ultra-high-resolution screens. The more advanced devices have significant processing power that enables multiple resource-intensive applications to be run simultaneously. Most smartphones and tablets are also equipped with different types of sensors. The accelerometer, for instance, allows users to play motion-sensitive games, and the display screen can auto-orient when the device is tilted.  Infrared proximity sensors allow phone displays to dim when not in use, extending battery life.1 Some gadgets also offer novel new ways of human-device interaction. The Samsung Galaxy S4 phone, for example, recognizes gestures that can be used to navigate the screen, skip songs, or browse the internet without having to touch the phone. Google Now and Apple iPhone’s Siri are intelligent personal assistants that accurately interpret voice commands.

Galaxy S3, the HTC One, the Galaxy S4, iPhone

Galaxy S3, the HTC One, the Galaxy S4, iPhone

With such innovations in hardware and software, it’s no surprise that mobile internet technology is proliferating. In 2010, the sales of tablets and smartphones exceeded that of personal computers. Today, these devices make up 30 per cent of all the mobile gadgets in use around the world.2 If this trend of explosive growth continues, it is expected that within the next 10 years, mobile devices could be the primary or perhaps even the only means of online connectivity for a majority of new internet users.

In the upcoming decade, mobile internet technology could generate tremendous economic gains through its impact on productivity, delivery of services, and from the addition of new users to the online world. With the technology becoming increasingly affordable, a significant proportion of the economic growth will be attributable to developing countries. While for many mainstream users mobile internet is simply another avenue to entertainment, in developing economies it may be the only means of internet connection for the majority. Entrepreneurship opportunities would flourish in these nations, new internet users would gain access to specialized knowledge, and more people could become participants in the digital global economy. Just by the spread of internet connectivity across developing regions, mobile internet technology could have an economic impact of about $5 trillion annually by 2025.3

The largest contribution to economic gain will come from mobile applications designed to improve the delivery of various services. The health care sector is expected to see the greatest impact, and most of the benefits will come from the improved management of chronic health conditions. Patients suffering from heart disease or diabetes, for instance, could have their blood pressure or glucose levels remotely monitored by health care professionals. This would allow timely intervention where needed, reducing expenses incurred from costly ER visits and hospitalizations. A case study by the US Veterans Health Administration has demonstrated that chronically ill patients equipped with remote monitoring devices use fewer resources than other patients. With the treatment of chronic diseases accounting for 60 per cent of health care expenditure, it is estimated that mobile internet applications could realize savings of over $2 trillion a year by 2025.3

Mobile computing could also benefit education. Teaching methods could integrate online and offline components to enhance the quality of lessons, and to customize tests and drills according to the performance of individual students. Some studies predict that such hybrid teaching models could increase high school graduation rates. In higher education systems, online learning setups could raise productivity by as much as 30 percent.

In the public sector, mobile internet technology could ease access to many services provided to citizens. Tax refund services or license applications, for instance, could be provided online, raising productivity by up to 70 per cent. Similarly, in the retail sector, switching stores to online channels could garner productivity gains of about 15 per cent. Most of the cost savings would be realized through reduced inventory, personnel, and real estate expenses.

Mobile internet technology has huge potential for allowing most future transactions to be conducted online. While 90 percent of all transactions made annually are still cash-based, this ratio could change significantly in the next ten years. It is estimated that by 2025, the increased share of transactions conducted electronically could create an economic surplus of around $300 billion a year.

Worker productivity is another area that stands to benefit greatly from mobile applications. Knowledge workers, such as support staff or medical professionals, will likely have the most opportunities for improvements in productivity. For example, a study conducted by the University of Chicago has shown that medical residents equipped with iPads are able to schedule procedures faster, and are also better able to explain medical problems to patients using instant visual aids.4 Boeing and BMW are already using augmented reality glasses to improve the productivity of assembly line workers and mechanics. The glasses allow workers to fetch instant online instructions that help in assembly and repairs.

If the world is to benefit from the full potential of mobile internet technology, there are still a few important challenges that need to be addressed. First off, as internet services and applications advance, technology providers will be required to pack powerful hardware and software into ever-smaller mobile devices. Moreover, all of this will have to be done without compromising device runtime. The progress of mobile devices will therefore depend on concurrent advances in battery performance.

The scarcity of unused wireless frequencies is a major obstacle to widespread mobile internet usage. With many mobile devices now capable of downloading applications, streaming high definition media, and browsing complex bandwidth-intensive websites, data traffic on mobile networks has been doubling annually. We have an extreme shortage of free wireless spectrum, and telecommunication companies are now bidding billions of dollars to acquire frequency rights. In the future, governments will have to invest heavily in infrastructure to increase internet coverage globally. Without advances in network capacity, the full potential of mobile internet usage will never be realized.


  1. Stephanie Lanier, “Hidden features and sensors in the Samsung Galaxy S4,” AndroidGuys.com, April 10, 2013.
  2. Yankee Group Global Mobile Forecast
  3. McKinsey Global Institute, Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, May 2013
  4. Mary Modahl, Tablets set to change medical practice, QuantiaMD report, June 15, 2011.