- Form, Transform, Platform How the Ubiquity of Mobile Phones Is Unleashing an Entrepreneurial Revolution
The spread of mobile technology throughout low-income countries has given rise to prominent entrepreneurs like Indian-born Sunil Mittal and Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim, who took the initiative to introduce the technology in large parts of India and Africa, respectively. Entrepreneurs like Mittal and Ibrahim, along with major mobile phone operators, have succeeded in making mobiles virtually universal and have deservedly become highly visible industrial leaders and role models for younger generations in terms of how to create new success stories. Mobiles themselves are in turn now unleashing thousands, if not millions, of entrepreneurs in low-income countries. These new entrepreneurs are less visible but nonetheless contributing to a dispersed entrepreneurial ecology on the ground that will change lives, create innovations, and strengthen democratic forces.
Numerous studies and accounts of mobile phones have discussed their global ubiquity, their substantial economic impact, and the extent of entrepreneurial possibilities they unleash. How can we better understand the scope of these new entrepreneurial roles? To start, we can observe that, for each new widely accepted technology, there are at least three phases of interaction between the technology and the economy, although the relative importance of these phases may vary for any given technology. Each of these phases gives rise to a class of entrepreneurs. I call these three categories Form, the development and utilization of a new base of purchasing power arising from increased user productivity; Transform, the new ways of doing business that further capitalize on the technology’s possibilities; and Platform, the new applications based on the original root technology. With these three classifications, I seek to create a framework for understanding and analyzing the broad long-range implications of a widely accepted technology like the mobile phone.
Take the case of the Model T a century ago; Henry Ford, in this case, would be the equivalent of Sunil Mittal or Mo Ibrahim. When these affordable cars first [End Page 3] came out, their users travelled much faster, thus saving time and accomplishing more. The ensuing economic benefits allowed users to advance materially and gain the ability to purchase other goods and services. This created an opportunity for entrepreneurs to produce and sell these other goods and services. This is the category I call Form. Next, as the affordable cars became widely available, it became possible to build larger factories away from residential settings, employing more workers dispersed over a wider area who could drive to work. Complementary but non-automotive assets such as better roads and highways were built to fully capitalize on the benefits of automobiles. Shopping malls outside of city centers became desirable. With time, the economy adjusted to the new possibilities of automobiles. I label the entrepreneurs in this category of activities—rethinking and reworking solutions to the needs of the economy — as Transform. Finally, a third set of activities were launched to produce new kinds of vehicles (such as trucks, vans, buses) on the original automobile Platform, to capitalize not just on the automobiles but also on the emerging complementary assets such roads and highways. Transform and Platform, moreover, in producing more value in the economy, gave rise to greater purchasing power and strengthened the impact of Form.
By exploring these categories, we can better understand the different entrepreneurs who emerge from each phase of the co-evolution between a widely accepted [End Page 4] technology, such as the mobile phones, and an economy. Entrepreneurs, in their own self-interest, capitalize on this co-evolution, but also in turn advance it. They benefit and are benefited by the blossoming of a technology.
Because mobiles are both accessible and empowering, they have been embraced en masse by people of all walks of life. Mobile phone penetration worldwide has skyrocketed since the 1990s; South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, two of the world’s poorest regions, together experienced an increase in penetration from 0 percent to 63 percent between 1996 and 2011. Increases in access form the foundation for broad-based purchasing power, giving low-income economies greater fertility for entrepreneurs in every imaginable area of human want, from...