How fast is the mobile revolution changing the world? Ask the Smartphone Generation


Shanghai, rush hour, a jam-packed subway car.

I’m squeezed between two young women, trying to hold onto something and not push too much. The women are not aware of my struggles, or anything else for that matter.

They are both absorbed by their phablets (newspeak for giant smartphones). Earbuds are plugged in, and the devices are turned horizontally. They’re watching video, not losing a blink as the train accelerates and stops. The only distraction is an incoming call to the woman on my left.

She turns her 5.5-inch screen to vertical to see who’s calling, pushes the microphone on her headset, half-shouts a few phrases in Mandarin, and then tilts back to horizontal and continues to watch what seems to be a reality show.

These women are two of the world’s most connected young adults – the Chinese millennials – according to a global study by Telefónica and the Financial Times. The Spanish telecommunications company, in partnership with FT, conducted 12,171 online interviews among millennials, ages 18 to 30, from 27 countries.

These young adults are the Smartphone Generation.

Globally, 76% of them own such a device. Asia has the most connected young population, with 83% owning a smartphone, compared to 71% in North America and 79% in western Europe. And Chinese millennials are the world’s most connected – 92% of them own a smartphone!

Who would have predicted this in 1990, when Pudong, the eastern part of Shanghai, was still rural farmland?

Pudong now showcases what might be the most futuristic skyline in the world, where movies like James Bond’s “Skyfall” and “Mission Impossible 3” were shot on location. It also hosts Mobile Asia Expo at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre, where more than 20,000 delegates from around the world, mainly Asia, come to see and hear the latest developments.

In that perspective, the question is: How fast is the mobile revolution changing the whole world?

Well, from what I hear and see in Shanghai – faster than fast.

Faster is the word repeated over and over again at this Pan-Asian event. Faster connections, faster growth, faster consumer adoption, faster pace of change. 

South Korean SK Telecom announced it has already launched the world’s first commercial LTE-Advanced network. “LTE-Advanced” is like 4G on steroids. The Korean company says download speeds are “two times faster than that of LTE, and 10 times faster than 3G .... LTE-A users can download an 800MB movie in just 43 seconds.”

But even faster than you can say “LTE = Long Term Evolution,” 5G is becoming the new buzzword among players in the mobile industry. A month ago, Samsung released news of its 5G technology to be commercialised by 2020. And, recently, Huawei, the Chinese smartphone giant, joined the “5G war of words.”

5G is, of course, a lot faster than 4G, but that’s not even the focus for the developers.

Wen Tong, head of Huawei Communications Technologies Labs, explains: “5G wireless will, first of all, open the frontiers of a new end-user experience. For example, visual communication will become the mainstream, and people will use wireless devices to interact instantly with people remotely, as if they were meeting face-to-face.

“5G will also wirelessly connect an enormous number of ‘things’ to the network. Therefore, in combination with cloud computing and Big Data, we can essentially automate the entire society.”

Sanqi Li, CTO at Huawei, added that the evolution of 2G and 3G were technology transformations, but that 4G is a business transformation. But the need for speed is not the only driver of innovation.

Convergence between the real world and the virtual is perhaps even more mind-boggling. At Mobile Asia Expo, Daniel Cho of Immersion demonstrated the innovative “haptics” technology. Haptics is the virtual sense of touching.

The technology will eventually allow people to “touch” each other through the screen during a video call, for instance – which is exactly what my 2-year-old daughter wants to do when we’re Skyping.

“Real time communications provide users with a sense of authenticity,” Cho explained. “Immersion is extending that concept to include the idea of physical presence by using tactile interactions to ‘feel’ another user’s actions.”

Welcome to the world of 4D.

Before you know it, 3D is becoming 4D, and 4G is becoming 5G.

Is your news organisation preparing services for that?

Just kidding.

But there is a serious side to that question. Let’s turn back to our millennials, “defined by their ubiquitous use of technology and belief that an education in technology will ensure personal future success,” as the global study concludes.

Let’s examine where they look for news and entertainment. Almost half of them (45%) consider Internet and social media the best source for “credible coverage of news” – the core of our business. Television grabs a 36% share and printed newspapers and magazines 15%.

When asked where they seek entertainment – historically an integral part of our value proposition – two out of three (64%) turn to Internet and social media, and only 3% to printed newspapers and magazines; television scores 31%, less than it gets for credible news coverage.

In other words, millennials have redefined traditional media.

Television – historically mainly an entertainment channel – is better at credible news coverage, in their view. And printed newspapers and magazines are non-existent for entertainment and a minor source for “credible coverage of news” (see graph below from the study).

Why is that? I think part of the reason is traditional media – with a few exceptions, of course – are not doing a very good job of helping people to understand the fast-changing world in which we’re living.

The millennials are tech savvy. Asked what is most important to ensuring future success:

  • 36% of them said an education in technology.

  • 20% said economics.

  • 13% said foreign languages.

  • 12% said science.

  • 4% said mathematics.

  • 3% said literature.

If you look at the different regions, it’s even more obvious how the world is changing: 44% of Asian millennials believe an education in technology is most important to ensure future success – versus only 23% in Western Europe and 28% in North America, the two lowest-scoring regions.

To be relevant for the millennials, technology reporting cannot just be about this or that new device, but more about privacy issues in a world flooded with Big Data, more about the new needs in education, more about interacting in the real and the virtual world. And more about the emerging world in Latin America, Africa and, of course, Asia, leading the charge into the future.

Pay attention: 65% of Asian millennials believe the global – and the regional – economy is on the right track. In Western Europe, only 26% believe the global economy is on the right track, and in North America, 37%.

Millennials all over the world predict China will drive the global economy.

Let me end this with another encounter with the world’s most connected young adults, this time at one of the smaller booths at the Mobile Asia Expo.

With enchanting enthusiasm and confidence, two young women are showcasing a pink, plush bunny rabbit. They are from Taiwan and are working to bring TuTu to the market, I learn.

TuTu is not just a stuffed animal. It brings the physical and the virtual worlds together. You download an app, insert your smartphone or your iPod, and the touchscreen becomes the face of TuTu.

You also get a set of real toys – a toothbrush, a milk box, etc. – that interact with the animal. Brush her teeth and TuTu will frown and gurgle. Cradle her and she will fall asleep.

I immediately buy one for my daughter’s upcoming third birthday. She’ll love it. It’s the world she’s already – at 2 – getting used to.

The Virtureality.

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