The mobile phone network is the computer


I have not quite mastered the ideas I am discussing in this blog. Hence, feedback welcome.

What if we could extrapolate the idea of the ‘network is the computer’ and extend the concepts of a ‘computer’ and a ‘network’ to higher levels in the software stack and especially to a ‘Network of mobile phones’. We then have the makings of a global network which spans countries and languages. Such a network can reach many more people than ‘a network of computers’.

By strange coincidence, as I was writing an article on multilingual mobile access, Ray Tsuchiyama (Tokyo based director of AOL/Tegic who I have known for many years) , sent me an email about SMS capabilities in Marathi, a sanskrit based Indo-Aryan language which is my ‘mother tongue’.

It kind of articulates my vision: the mobile phone will touch the lives of many people globally who, for various reasons, will never use a computer. That network may not be in ‘English’. It will include richer media like movies, images, sound and podcasting. It will also bring together many more people globally : such as a Japanese American director of AOL living in Tokyo and a UK based director of a publishing company of Indian origin who originally speaks a language which AOL/Tegic have now SMS enabled in India(Marathi).

Lets start with the early days of computing. Back in the 1970s, Bill Gates articulated his vision of ‘a computer on every desk, and every one running Microsoft software’. By the late 90s, that vision was largely complete, making Mr Gates a fortune in the process.

Another profound vision was articulated by Sun co-founder John Gage in 1984. It concerned a different model called ‘distributed computing’ and it said : ‘The network is the computer’. By the late 1990s, that vision was also almost realised, especially with the rise of the Internet.

Both these visions were correct in their own right(and in their own time). They are also mutually complimentary: because we can have a PC on each desk running software and we can also leverage the network for ‘on demand’ computing power – much like the old time sharing options.

From my point of view, Sun’s vision is more interesting because it is closer to the Internet. A recent blog by Jonathan Schwartz(Sun CEO), explains this vision in the context of ‘Grid computing’


a) A ‘computer’ is something that can process information and

b) A computer is not confined to a single machine but to a network of connected intelligent machines.

While the notion of the ‘Network is your computer’ is enticing, it is still at a raw, processing capacity level.

What if we could extrapolate these ideas of a ‘computer’ and a ‘network’ to higher levels in the stack and especially to a ‘Network of mobile phones’.

While a grid network is at a physical architecture level, at higher(application) levels of the stack, another ‘network’ was taking shape. Called ‘web services’ or SOA(service oriented architecture), it is a way for discrete applications to collaborate with each other, thereby creating a new, more complex application which is greater than it’s components. According to the wikipedia definition, In an SOA environment, nodes on a network make resources available to other participants in the network as independent services that the participants access in a standardized way.

With the coming of web 2.0, lightweight versions of the SOA architecture have the capacity to reach (include) more people.

In both these cases (SOA and web 2.0 networks), there is

a) Some ‘computation’ at the application level and

b) There is a ‘network’ which facilitates that computation.

Purely by being simpler and at higher levels of the stack, it’s ‘reach’ is greater.

Now, if we extend the same thinking to ‘Mobile web 2.0’, the ‘network’ becomes even more interesting (and far reaching)


a) Globally, at end of 2005, there were 2.1 billion mobile phones vs. 1.0 billion Internet users.

Even amongst those one billion Internet users, over 200 million of them accessed the Internet via a mobile

phone (mostly in Japan, China and South Korea).

b) The mobile phone is capable of capturing far greater quantities of content because the phone is present

at the ‘point of inspiration’

c) Content created from the mobile phone is increasingly being ‘tagged’. This makes the network of mobile

phones capable of some computation/ intelligence (‘Intelligence’, being defined here as ‘collective

intelligence’/’wisdom of crowds’)

d) Content captured from mobile phones could incorporate sound, video, pictures, podcasts and text.

e) The ‘non textual’ web combined with the numbers of people using mobile phones as opposed to

computers, has greater potential of being a truly global network

f) Sound(music), images and video are much more universal than text(language). The non textual web

lends itself to being a ‘network of networks’. What does this mean in practise? Think of an application

similar to ‘flickr’ or ‘YouTube’ but including images and video from all over the world. Indeed, even now,

there are images and video from many different countries in an application like YouTube, but these are

created mainly by travellers to those countries as opposed to residents in the countries.

Thus, in a Mobile web 2.0 context, we could say ‘The phone network is the computer’. Of course, when I say ‘phone network’ – I don’t mean the ‘Mobile operator network’. Rather, I mean an open , web driven application capable of aggregating (mainly non text) content from any phone anywhere in the world

This can be depicted as below


To sumarise ..



  1. Alex says:

    So you are talking about a mesh-network, yes? Distributed computing carries connotations of sharing processing power, but the more interesting possibilities are in information transfer – social applications and so on and so forth.

  2. Judy Breck says:

    You are laying out a BIG idea that I suspect is where the tech stack is headed. I think there is a hovering network above that tech stack into which the networking of devices/software/etc will one day mesh. That hovering and intangible but very real grand network (or “grand idea” as I have called it in my books) is cognitive — it is what is known by humankind. (A portion of this network exists within each of our minds and grows as we learn; it inhabits the network of our neurons just as content inhabits networks of PCs and mobiles.) I love the insight in what you have written here of the mobile as the “point of inspiration” and thus a point of formation of new content flowing into the grand cognitive network that is the sum of all such content. The movement that has come to be called “open” reflects our reaching to experience the grand cognitive network. It seems to me what you are saying describes a level of the stack of tech stuff that is getting close to platforming (meshing with) the cognitive grand idea/network. I think you are onto a HUGE insight in proffering that mobiles are a crucial new level in the stack.

  3. CK says:

    Are we suggesting something similar to Nokia allowing direct media upload to Flickr?

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    Carnival of the Mobilists #30 brings some interesting insights into the world of mobile lifestyle (or lifestyle in a mobile world). Just some notes to keep your brain active: Xen Mendelsohn Even better – imagine that we could get the…

  5. People have under estimated the power of the cell phone to create a fundemental shift in computing. The emergence of Web 2.0 applications represents an interesting threat to the dominance of Microsoft. But it is only when we understand the potential of the cell phone that we recognize the true risk to Microsoft’s dominance. Is it any surprise that Microsoft have been sinking vast resources in to Windows CE/PocketPC and smartphone platforms to try to maintain leverage.
    Think about it. If I can go to Google, Zoho etc. and get a web-based Office application – one that is easy to share with my colleagues – it challenges the dominance of Windows. After all, I just need a browser. If you then add in the ability of cell phones to update calendars, respond to email etc. either via SMS or via a mobile web browser then you begin to ask the question – what do I need a PC for.
    I think we will see the desktop disappear in the next few years. The laptop will hang on a lot longer simply because network access is not pervasive.

  6. Gary says:

    In theory it sounds good. But lets have a reality check.
    June 2007. Latest Mobile phones from Nokia: N95, E90 and other do not have natural ability to get file access in network (LAN or WAN).
    How one, I mean Nokia, can call it “mobile network computer” without file access?
    Ok, now thanks to Telexy Networks with application SymSMB v.2 this access is possible.
    But this is the one and only solution and this is more then 1 year latter
    after an introduction of concept of “phone as mobile network computer”.

  7. Ajit Jaokar says:

    I agree Gary .. I have been a bit too optmistic about this perhaps!

  8. kavindra k.khot says:

    we want marathi web download software system on NOKIA N73

  9. Ibrahim Tia says:

    Do you agree that,”The network is the computer”? Why and why not?