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A billion new cellphones

Jan Chipchase's travels to villages in Uganda, markets in Kabul, and fishing hamlets in Southeast Asia are part of his job as a "cellphone anthropologist." His mission is to do para-research for Nokia.

There are around 3 billion cellphone users worldwide. In two more years, another billion are expected. When dealing with 4 billion customers, American teenagers and businessmen are a surprisingly small market. The real revolution is in the developing world, where cellphones have changed the way people do business, get healthcare, and live their lives.

In the wake of cell phones come unexpected benefits: companies bring electricity and internet access into new areas. Many fisherman and farmers call ahead to determine which wares they bring into market. Text messaging services offer medical advice without trips to the doctor.

While I admire the cellphone anthropologist, Nokia is forced to balance their users' concerns with conventional models. How many thousand users are needed to justify making each application? How will the end user make mass-market applications work for their particular needs?

There are many answers, but the best one comes from a relatively unknown project. Google is developing Android as an operating system for cell phones. Android will be entirely free and open-source, and run programs written in Java. This would allow start-up companies to develop programs or even sell their own phone for minimal costs.
Already, hundreds of development teams have participated in a competition for Android applications. Half of them have never made cell phone applications before, and those with experience have praised Google's commitment to making a powerful and accessible system.

The next billion phones can remain as they always have been, locked devices with an arcane bureaucracy limiting applications to business partners, or they can embrace a new business model. One that allows a market in Bangalore to reach sellers and customers, or can inspire a college student in Nicaragua to start a technology corporation.