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From Smartphones to a Smarter World: The Impact of Mobile Tech

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Last Saturday, as a chilly April rainstorm drenched the nation's capital, I ventured to the chic, eco-friendly Microsoft headquarters situated on D.C.'s northern border.

I braved the rainstorm to join a diverse group of technologists, strategists, and other local professionals for the one-day MobileCitizen Summit, an event devoted exclusively to all things relating to mobile technology. In case you haven't heard, mobile is hot. Very hot.

Given the event's proximity to Capitol Hill, the opening keynote panel dealt -- surprise, surprise -- with the role of mobile in politics and the election cycle. Long story short: expect to see a huge push by campaigns to incorporate mobile into their outreach strategies.

Following the keynote, a veritable smorgasbord of sessions covered everything from the unique U/I design challenges of mobile platforms to the novel intellectual property issues arising from the proliferation of mobile content.

True to the style of the burgeoning DC tech scene, there was plenty of innovative and hands-on action to be found. In one room, a hackathon (sponsored and curated by Peter Corbett of D.C.-based innovation tank iStrategyLabs) challenged participants to build socially responsible mobile apps, with cash prizes awarded to the best designs. Elsewhere, political video blogger extraordinaire James Kotecki turned the audience into impromptu mobile video producers by setting up a Youtube channel and having small groups upload their best attempts at a faux-campaign video from their own mobile phones.

The MobileCitizen summit reflects a growing call to action to make mobile technology work in meaningful ways. The vanguard of the mobile revolution -- the smartphone -- has usurped the roles of countless other devices that until recently were considered necessities of modern life. Eventually, we may rely solely on our mobile devices, especially as they expand voraciously in capability and speed.

The catalytic power of mobile technology can hardly be overstated. It has enabled modernization and development in areas of the world largely passed over by the computer revolution. SMS systems have doubled as mobile banking platforms in sub-Saharan Africa, while the recent revolutions along the North African coast have been bolstered by cell phone-wielding citizen journalists and organizers. Entire regions of the planet that lack broadband wired data networks can bridge the crevasse of connectivity thanks to affordable, scalable mobile technology.

The meteoric rise of mobile also brings a whole slew of new problems and challenges, many of which were highlighted at the summit.

The first and foremost is the growing deluge of mobile data. From a transactional standpoint, wireless networks must continually expand in order to meet demand for bandwidth; meanwhile, everyone from the media to end users have to contend with an overwhelming amount of content produced and shared on mobile devices. How do we make this ceaseless surge in mobile-sourced data meaningful? Who will be responsible for curating and organizing it?

Thankfully, there is evidence that these issues are finally being given the attention they deserve. Case in point: the MobileCitizen summit and similar initiatives popping up worldwide.

As recent as two or three years ago, application developers and companies alike treated mobile as a secondary platform -- if they acknowledged it at all. Thanks to the runaway success of mobile app stores, developers have caught wind of the mobile gold rush and have been shifting focus to mobile development.

The end result is a virtuous cycle: as mobile gets more sophisticated and lucrative, more developers join the fray and take the requisite experimental risks, pushing the mobile envelope even further into the future.

Ultimately, we are mobile creatures. The progress of technology towards a mobile future is, in a way, a return to our core modus operandi. Instead of us being more and more tied down to the devices that occupy our desktops, workstations and living rooms, mobile technology allows for us to have it the other way around.

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