What Are We Doing With All This Computing Power?

By Sarah Sorensen
April 25, 2012

When Apple released its earnings this week, they announced they sold 35.1 million iPhones in the quarter. Since introducing the iPad in 2010, they have sold 67 million devices. When you stop to think about it, those numbers are just mind boggling - to put them context, it took them 24 years to sell as many Macintosh computers as they have iPads! We have heard for some time the growth trajectory of mobile devices is on a crazy hockey stick curve - but have yet to understand what this really means.

There are 5.9 billion mobile subscribers around the globe, which is 87% of the world's population. High growth is taking place everywhere, particularly emerging markets like China and India, which now account for more than 30% of the world's mobile subscribers - just this quarter Apple said they had $7.9 billion in revenue from China. We see that as people gain income, they use that money to gain access - in some countries, people will spend as much as 14% of their income on Internet access.

But what are we really doing? We can connect with others - in the U.S. and a sampling of 10 global markets, social networks and blogs are the top online destinations. We can become better informed by accessing all the information and resources available online (check out one of my favorite infographics that puts 5 million Terabytes of data into perspective or this blog from wiseGEEK that discusses our inability to truly capture and understand the size of the Internet). We can use the myriad of applications and services at our disposal to make it easier to conduct more and more of personal, business and civic lives online (I like this infographic that compares Apple's app store growth to McDonald's hamburgers to give you an idea of the scale of what's available).

But are we really using all this computing power to our best advantage? Carl Bass, Autodesk's CEO, thinks not. At an event earlier this year, he pointed out "My phone in my pocket is 30,000 times more powerful than what was on the original space shuttle. Through the cloud I have access to more computing power than existed on the planet just five years ago, but we are underutilizing the technology."

For example, "there is an incredible power to really understand the products we are building using computing," said Bass. Of course, Autodesk sells software that makes it easy for designers, engineers and architects to better understand the implications of their product, manufacturing, building, and infrastructure designs to help them make better, more sustainable choices. But the point is well made - beyond Angry Birds and posts to Twitter, there is an opportunity for us to use all this computing power to make real differences. We have seen this power time and time again.

From a political standpoint, the use of phones and Internet access can help people to come together and demand change. It can be used to improve the social welfare of people - for example, research by TNS identified ways in which mobile technology can empower rural farmers, women entrepreneurs and young people to improve their quality of life; the emergence of mobile banking/payments is facilitating transactions and making commerce possible in places where it has traditionally been difficult to prosper; and there are trials going on right now to integrate phones in developing countries to try to improve educational outcomes.

"We can use a computer to find the optimal solution to almost any problem, so we don't have to keep guessing," said Bass. The next time you pick up your phone, think about where you want to do with all that power - remember, with the computing power of the first space shuttle at your fingertips, the possibilities are truly limitless.

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