Eric Schmidt's future manifesto

Google's executive chairman has a lot to say about our connected future but the issue of privacy still gets short shrift.

Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt was at his erudite best earlier this week as he painted a picture of a world where science fiction bleeds into everyday life. Driverless cars, robots, holograms it’s everything a technophile can ever hope for and there’s no denying that we are inexorably edging towards that world, although some of us are clearly travelling towards that future faster than others.

Schmidt couldn’t have found a better venue to articulate his vision that the Mobile World Congress summit at Barcelona and it certainly makes sense if you wanted to put a positive spin on that privacy hoopla that everyone has been talking about off late.

The former Google CEO actually had very little to say as far as product development was concerned and once the perfunctory demo of Chrome for Android was out of the way, Schmidt was all about the  future. And he raised a few interesting points.

Ubiquitous connectivity is a worthy goal but there is still plenty of work needed to ensure that its benefits are enjoyed by all. The ‘digital divide’ issue has been around for more than a decade or so and Schmidt not only says that the “power of technology” is still a dream for billions but warns the gap is only getting bigger.

This gap isn’t simply dictated by access to technology anymore and Schmidt reckon we could be in for a situation where the rich would have access to the best technologies, while a middle class of ‘connected contributors’ will accelerate the pace at which they continue to develop the building blocks of our connected future. As for the five billion still not connected their time will also come but they way they use and interact with technology won’t quite be on the same grand scale as the their more well connected brethren.

The key enabler here is connectivity and that’s what Schmidt reckons will give us a place around what he describes a ‘digital watering hole’, where all are welcome but the best spots are already taken.

Building this watering hole will require a revolution which Schmidt hopes will have a decidedly Android flavour to it.  Schmidt says that the price of Android devices could very easily fall to around a $US70 range thanks to the rapid fire advances in technology and the massive economies of scale. However, there is no doubt that smartphone costs will only continue to slide maybe even as much Schmidt is predicting and they will get better and faster and it’s quite likely that there will be a smartphone in every pocket.

That’s an opportunity Google would want to exploit to its fullest and as Ovum analyst Tony Cripps points out Android’s current growth trajectory could well look modest in coming years. Although Apple and Microsoft would no doubt have some say in that matter.

Cripps also makes an interesting observation that not everyone is going to be enamoured by Schmidt’s vision given that it has already made it hard for other mobile ecosystem players to offer value-added services to their subscriber bases.

“This effect now looks to be accelerating and driving downwards into the global mass market, meaning that its impact will become more profound both in new markets and new segments,” he says.

“The onus increasingly looks to be falling on those parties to lobby for a more equitable competitive landscape, as regards value added services and network access, or to seek closer, more beneficial partnerships with Google and other major OTT players.”

The final piece of Schmidt’s manifesto at Barcelona was a pointed attack on censorship and over-regulation, noting that Google’s products are blocked “in about 25” of the 125 countries where it operates.

“Today 40 countries engage in online censorship in some form, up from just four a decade ago,” he said. “Even in the US we have seen worrying legislative and regulatory proposals in recent months.”

Now, these comments are all the more interesting because Google’s had its fair share of troubles when it comes to privacy and regulation.

Spuik a grand vision of a golden future hard enough and you just might be able to sidestep the concerns around privacy. To his credit, Schmidt didn’t bury the issue entirely but there was no in depth dialogue. According to Schmidt, users can always opt to browse anonymously, although the search results might not be the best.

Perhaps Schmidt and Google’s attitude to where privacy fits into the connected future is best summed up by his response to the concerns raised by one attendee about the dehumanising imperatives of his vision. Schmidt reportedly held up his mobile phone into the air and said "It has an off button and it is here on the right."