Yesterday, Apple released its new iPhones, one a slightly updated version of the iPhone 5 with a fingerprint reader, and one a cheaper version ("unapologetically plastic," in the term the PR wizards came up with) meant to attract new customers in developing countries. In case you didn't catch any of the eight zillion articles written about the release, minds remained rather unblown. Apple may still be an unstoppable engine of profit, but there are only so many times you can tweak a product and convince people it's totally revolutionary (not that that will stop Apple cultists from standing in line to get the latest version). In any case, this is as good a time as any to step back and look at the remarkable spread of mobile phones across the Earth. There are few other technologies that have found their way into so many hands in so short a time.
Mobile phones actually date back to the 1940s, when AT&T set up a system that would allow truckers to make calls from certain cities and highways. The first cell phone consumers could buy, the Motorola Dynatac 8000x, came out in 1984 (for the low price of $3,995). As recently as 20 years ago, cell phones were still a clunky novelty, not the kind of thing regular people with regular jobs think they needed.
And today? According to data from the International Telecommunication Union, in 2012 there were 6.3 billion mobile telephone subscriptions, on a planet with 7 billion people. In fact, in over half the Earth's nations, there are more subscriptions than people. The champions are Macau, with 284 subscriptions per 100 people, and Hong Kong, with 228. Do Kuwaitis need 191 mobile subscriptions for every hundred people? I guess they do. (I presume this is because people have personal and work phones, but maybe there's some weird cultural thing I'm not aware of where lots of people in some countries like having two or three phones with different numbers.) Bringing up the rear were Somalia and Eritrea, with 6.7 and 5.5 subscriptions per 100 people respectively. The United States, by the way, was at 98 subscriptions per 100 people last year. We'll make it over that hump soon, maybe this year. Worldwide, an incredible 432 million mobile phones were shipped in the second quarter of 2013 alone.
Most of the countries at the bottom in cell-phone adoption are in Africa, where some time ago people began realizing that there was little point in following the traditional path to universal telephony, in which first land lines become common and then mobile phones take over. Those markets are waiting to be tapped with low-cost mobile phones, but the real prize is China, where there were a mere 1.1 billion mobile subscriptions in 2012. If you could get the Chinese to the level of, say, the Vietnamese, who have 1.5 subscriptions per person, that would be another billion phones and subscriptions sold. Who's going to make all that money? Apple may have (sort of) invented the smartphone, but Samsung sells many more phones and recently surpassed Apple in profits from its handset division. So Apple isn't going to let other companies exploit that Chinese market without a fight; that's where the cheaper iPhone comes in.
Back here in the United States, smartphone adoption is on a rapid rise; according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, two years ago 36 percent of Americans owned smartphones, and today the figure is 56 percent (91 percent say they own some kind of mobile phone). Interestingly, African Americans are more likely than whites and Hispanics to own a smartphone, but they're not buying Apple. While whites and Hispanics are equally likely to own an iPhone or an Android phone, only 16 percent of blacks have an iPhone, while 42 percent have an Android.
Even if Apple's attempt to get iPhones into the hands of the billions of earthlings who don't already have them doesn't succeed, it seems likely that they and their competitors will figure out how to sell phones to nearly everyone everywhere, even people who are extremely poor (in India, more people have mobile phones that access to toilets). That is, until the 2024 debut of the iBrain, the neural implant that makes all other communication devices obsolete.