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The mobile revolution: so fast you may not notice

Web-enabled smart phones are allowing users to skip the PC experience and get access to content whenever, wherever, they want

Globe and Mail Update


Michael Jones spends a lot of his time reading the proverbial technology tea leaves.

As the chief technology advocate for Google Inc., Mr. Jones has to think big and help keep the world's most powerful Internet company on the cutting edge of technology. When Google's executives need to explain the importance of the Internet or the company's message to a CEO, prime minister or king, they send Mr. Jones.

So it's no surprise that even as he looks back on a decade that saw the personal computer and the Internet reshape the worlds of business, culture and media, Mr. Jones can already see the winds of change stirring up a new digital reality.

"The mobile phone is for the next decade what the computer has been for the last two or three," Mr. Jones said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "The whole experience of the Internet is becoming not a desktop computer experience, but a personal experience. It's something you're going to grow up with and you're going to live with all your life and I think every handheld device will have all of those experiences."

Although it has been 10 years since the birth of Napster - the music-sharing software that kick started mainstream digital media consumption - many industries have yet to come to grips with the new digital world. They are struggling to make money and to adapt old-world business models to the Internet.

Physical media formats are under threat. Books, CDs, DVDs and newspapers all have digital competitors that offer the same content without taking up shelf or closet space. How the media companies produce and digitally deliver content that once came in a physical format, while still generating revenue, will separate the winners from the losers in the coming decade.

However, two fundamental questions arise with respect to the future of digital media: How are consumers going to get their content and who is going to pay for it?

Many people still don't pay for media they can get free elsewhere. Even with iTunes having sold five billion songs, the music industry says 95 per cent of the music downloaded from the Internet is not paid for. Movie studios claim to be losing billions of dollars in lost ticket and DVD sales every year as a result of piracy. Some newspapers are being forced to close because users are getting their news online.

With consumers reluctant to foot the bill for online content, many industries are turning to advertising, shifting the cost from the user to a third party. This approach allows content owners to provide a free service to consumers in a manner similar to broadcast television, with advertisers footing the bill in return for reaching the consumer audience.

If the past 10 years ends up being remembered as the Download Decade, the next 10 might well come to be known as the mobile decade. Web-enabled smart phones such as Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry devices and Apple Inc.'s iPhone are providing users the means to skip the PC experience and get access to content whenever they want, wherever they want.

"If you want to see the next 10 years, just look at the next 10 months," RIM's co-chief executive officer, Jim Balsillie, said in an interview. "You can only see so far ahead, but you're just seeing a revolution happening right now and it's just so fast, you almost don't notice, if that doesn't sound like a paradox."

The Internet will remain an increasingly important distribution medium for digital media, but the range of faster mobile devices with larger screens and greater storage capacity that consumers can use to access the Web is enabling a host of new ways to get music, movies and other information on the go.

However, smart phones don't simply offer a new medium to experience content. Software applications are giving users more control over what they can do with their mobile phones than ever before. Apple's App Store, an online marketplace for games and other software, reached a billion downloads in less than a year.

By combining various functions - linking social networking with GPS or marrying music services with the ability to buy concert tickets, for example - these devices and applications are changing the way people communicate and interact with media.

"The best parallel that I use is when they first came out with motion picture projectors, the whole thought of those was, 'Hey, now I can do a stage play and play it at a different location at a different time,' " Mr. Balsillie said. "The concept of a 'movie' wasn't in anybody's mind at the time because they couldn't see how the media could change the nature of the entertainment.

"In the case of smart phones, we're just time- and place-shifting some of the applications. Will it actually change the nature of the application? Absolutely. Do we know exactly how it's going to change it? I don't think so."




Watch a series of interviews on the future of music, media and the Internet.

Live discussion

Today [Thurs.] at 3 p.m. ET, Jonathan Lister of Google Canada will take questions on the future of digital media and the next 10 years of the Internet. And on Friday at 11 a.m., The Globe's Matt Hartley and Mike Snider take questions on the series.


With other Globe readers, draft an open letter to the entertainment industry on how it should best serve you as a consumer.


All the content from the series, including four documentary videos and 12 podcasts, are available via iTunes and BitTorrent.


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