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4. The Rise of the Mobile Phone

The mobile phone has rapidly become the most widely used technology in the world. It is far more common than traditional computers, the Internet, and even traditional media like television and radio. Spanning cultures, countries and socioeconomic classes, the mobile phone is uniquely positioned as one of the most strategic tools in the task of making disciples of all people groups.

Note: While the first three chapters focused primarily on missiology, this chapter is about technology. The change in focus, while stark, is difficult to avoid, as the rise of technology among the global church is a very important factor in 21st century world missions. This chapter starts off by briefly tracing the “wiring of the world” for computer technology before addressing the missiological opportunities presented by the worldwide rise of mobile technology.

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A few years ago, I found myself standing on a sidewalk in Thailand slowly coming to the realization that the world had passed me by. Overnight, it seemed, nearly everyone had acquired a mobile phone and was using it constantly. Talking in the mall. Streaming videos in noodle shops. Listening to MP3s while installing air conditioners. Texting while walking. Texting while waiting for the bus. Texting while riding motorcycles. The mobile phone was everywhere.

The explosion of mobile phones in popularity is not limited to Thailand. In only a few years, the mobile phone has gone from a technological novelty enjoyed by a few to an indispensable aspect of life nearly everywhere on earth. People that live on less than $2/day and have, until recently, been on the other side of the “digital divide” are now on the web, updating their Facebook status from their mobile phone in their village. What happened? And how did it happen so rapidly? The chain of events that leads to the ongoing mobile phone revolution starts with what is arguably one of the most significant developments in history: the dawn of the digital age.

From Atoms to Bits

The 20th century (and many centuries before it) was about tangible, physical goods. Industries and business dealt in atoms: manufacturing, transporting, and selling physical goods. Even sectors of society that dealt with intangible goods like education, information, and entertainment were dependent on physical objects for the storage and transfer of information. Books were printed on paper (i.e. the “paper” world). Music and other content was recorded on vinyl discs and magnetic tapes. In order to get access to the content, like a book or a song, it was necessary to have a physical object with an actual physical imprint of the content on it. In the case of a book, the physical imprint was ink on paper. For record albums, the physical imprint was the groove cut into the vinyl. For video, it was the spool of tape with the print of each frame in the film (or, in the case of video cassettes, the magnetic patterns in the tape).

But everything changed with the invention of digital technology. Digital technology made it possible to represent the same content (like a song, movie, or book) as “bits” of digital information—a string of virtual 0s and 1s that a computer could interpret. Instead of needing a physical copy of the song, movie, or book, you could give a computer a “file” containing the digital representation of the content and there you were: reading a book or listening to your favorite song on a computer.

This may seem like a trivial change, and at first it did not change much in the day-to-day life of anyone except the computer scientists who invented it. But it would soon prove to be a development of historic proportions, one that would change the lives of virtually everyone in the world in just a few short decades.

The Computer Gets Personal

In the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, the cover story introduced a computer called the MITS Altair 8800, billing it the “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” Most commercial computers in those days were huge and extremely expensive, putting them beyond the reach of most people. Two young computer scientists, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, realized that the Altair 8800 computer was practically useless to hobbyists without an easy programming language. So Gates and Allen got their version of a popular programming language to run on the computer and convinced MITS to sell it. This event was the beginning of the company known today as Microsoft.

In 1980, IBM designed a new computer, but it needed an operating system. Microsoft got the contract to provide it and the IBM “Personal Computer” running Microsoft’s operating systems (DOS, later Windows) eventually became one of the most common computing platforms for the next decades. The IBM PC and Microsoft’s software made it possible for anyone—not just technically skilled people—to join in the digital revolution.

In the years that followed, computer users became accustomed to a standardized graphical interface for word processing and spreadsheets. But the real revolution was still to come. The IBM PC was originally a stand-alone computer and transferring digital content like a word processor document from one computer to another required physically moving a floppy disk with the data from one computer to another. There was no alternative, until the computers were connected together on a network.

The Personal Computer Gets Networked

Computer networks had been invented many years before, but the technology on which the Internet of today is built was not developed until the 1980s. The invention of the “Internet Protocol Suite” enabled large, commercial computers to communicate with each other over a network. But large-scale “inter-networking” of those networks together—the Internet—had not yet taken place.

Gradually, the technology for networking computers together was also included in personal computers. In 1991, the standardized protocols of the “World Wide Web” were invented, which enabled anyone with a computer to “browse” to any website in the world and retrieve information. At the time, however, “browsing the web” remained outside the reach of average people using average personal computers, because of the lack of a functional web browser. That changed with the release of Netscape Navigator.

The Networked Personal Computer Gets a Web Browser

Marc Andreessen was studying computer science at the University of Illinois around this time. He had a vision of creating software that would enable anyone to browse the Internet. He wanted to “level the playing field” among the different computer operating systems by providing a consistent web browsing experience across all of them. He and his team of programmers built a web browser called Netscape Navigator, with the motto “the web is for everyone.”

When Netscape went public on August 9, 1995 their stock price exceeded everyone’s expectation, and by the end of the day, Netscape was valued at 2.9 billion dollars. Two weeks later, Microsoft released Windows 95, the first version of their operating system that had built-in support for accessing the Internet. The combination of a user-friendly web browser and an Internet-ready operating system was an idea whose time had come.

In very little time, Netscape became the fastest-growing software firm in history.1 Up until the release of the Navigator web browser and Netscape’s astronomical rise, major technology companies like Sun, Oracle, SGI, and Microsoft had been focused on interactive television. Now, these large companies as well as thousands of new startups began focusing on the Internet. Netscape had not only made web browsing possible for average people, it had also inadvertently set the stage for what came to be known as the “dot-com bubble.”

The World Gets Connected

From 1995–2000, hundreds of new Internet companies were started, called dot-coms. In the hope of finding another company as successful as Netscape, venture capitalists were quick to fund these new startups, often long before conventional wisdom suggested they were worth the risk. Some of the startups were extremely successful, like Amazon and Google. But the “dot-com bubble” started to collapse in on itself in 2000. Many of the startups went bankrupt after burning through their venture capital, often without ever having turned a profit.

Before the collapse of the bubble, however, something very significant happened. Some of the dot-com startups that specialized in laying fiber optic cable had laid cables underneath oceans and connected together many countries on every continent. Thomas Friedman, in The World is Flat explains it this way:

The Internet boom led everyone to assume that the demand for bandwidth to carry all that Internet traffic would double every three months—indefinitely. For about two years that was true. But then the law of large numbers started to kick in, and the pace of doubling slowed. Unfortunately, the telecom companies were not paying close attention to the developing mismatch between demand and reality. The market was in the grip of an Internet fever, and companies just kept building more and more capacity. And the stock market boom meant money was free! It was a party! So every one of these new telecom companies got funded. In a period of about five or six years, these telecom companies invested about $1 trillion in wiring the world.2

So the world had been wired for the Web and the spread of the Internet around the globe accelerated rapidly in the years that followed. In 1995, the year Netscape went public, there were fewer than 40 million Internet users worldwide. By the end of 2011, there were nearly 2.3 billion Internet users worldwide.3

As significant as the Internet and personal computers were in the digital age, the mobile phone was on track to become an even more significant development. In 1995, at the start of the dot-com boom, there were only 2 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people worldwide. But that number was about to skyrocket. If current growth rates continue (and it appears they will), there will be more than 100 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people worldwide in 2013.4

The World Goes Mobile

Part of the reason I was surprised by the prevalence of the mobile phone in Thailand was because before moving there, I had been living in Papua New Guinea. That part of the world had not yet experienced the same surge of growth in the availability and affordability of mobile phones. When I lived there, mobile phones were so rare and costly that only the most wealthy could afford them. That changed rapidly, thanks to innovative mobile phone companies.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Digicel is a company that provides mobile phone service in impoverished and politically unstable countries. The approach used by Denis O’Brien, the founder of Digicel, in challenging contexts like these is: Give phones to the masses and they will fight your enemies for you.5

This strategy, which had proven successful in many other countries, succeeded brilliantly in Papua New Guinea as well. Within a few months, Digicel made mobile phones available to hundreds of thousands of people who had never owned one before. By the end of 2010, there were more than 1.7 million mobile connections in Papua New Guinea.6

This same story is repeating itself in many other parts of the world. Entrepreneurs and large businesses alike are realizing that the so-called digital divide is a massive untapped market. They are scrambling to take advantage of this opportunity by making mobile phones and mobile services available to the developing world. People in remote parts of Asia and Africa are using mobile phones long before the electric grid makes its way to their villages. In most parts of the developing world, people are bypassing the intermediate technologies of personal computers and landlines by going directly from no digital technology to Internet-capable mobile phones in one short step. The mobile phone is bridging the digital divide.

Huge and Growing Fast

The mobile industry is the fastest growing industry in the world and one of the few trillion dollar industries.7 It is growing so fast that statistics are often obsolete by the time they are published. That said, these numbers may help to paint the picture of the phenomenal growth of the mobile phone at the time of writing:

  • In 2006 there were 2.7 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, with 1.6 billion of them in the developing world. By the end of 2012, there were approximately 6.7 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide. Around 5 billion of those subscriptions were in the developing world, primarily India and China. In five years, nearly 3 billion mobile subscriptions were activated in the developing world!8

  • 9 out of 10 mobile phones sold worldwide in 2011 included a web browser and were capable of accessing the Internet. (Note that this includes all phones, not just “smartphones.”)9

  • Smartphones accounted for only 25% of the phones in use worldwide in 2012.10

  • Nearly 3/4 of all mobile phones sold worldwide in 2011 included a memory card slot and had media playing capabilities.11

  • Africa has the highest rate of growth in mobile subscriptions among major world regions. By the end of 2012, Africa had more than 750 million mobile subscriptions and was predicted to reach 1 billion by the end of 2015.12

  • China has more than 1 billion mobile phone users, with India not far behind (nearly 900 million in 2011), bringing the total mobile connections in the Asia-Pacific region to over 3 billion.13

  • China has more people using the mobile web than the U.S. has people. Over 538 million Chines use the Internet and 72% of them (388 million) access the Internet from their mobile phones.14

  • 100% mobile phone penetration worldwide—when the number of mobile phone subscriptions equals the population of the world—will occur sometime in 2013, if current growth rates continue. More than 100 countries already have more mobile phone subscriptions than people, and some already have twice as many mobile phone subscriptions as people.15

  • 4 out of every 5 mobile connections is in the developing world.16

  • In 2013, mobile phones are expected to overtake PCs as the most common Internet access device worldwide.17

Numbers like these often raise a question: What is it about the mobile phone that has resulted in such phenomenal growth in just a few years, even in the developing parts of the world?

The mobile phone is unlike any other technology in that it provides unprecedented opportunities and functionality at a relatively low price. One of the most basic and essential advantages of the mobile phone is that it enables people to communicate and stay socially connected at a very personal level. At the same time, the mobile phone also provides significant economic and educational opportunities.

Economic Opportunities

The classic example is of the fisherman coming in from the sea with his catch and phoning ahead to the various ports to find the best price for selling his fish. In other parts of the world, a betel nut seller can continue selling in the marketplace and use his mobile phone to ask his suppliers if a new shipment has come in yet. Before the mobile phone, he would have needed to leave the market (losing sales) in order to check on the shipment. Now he can accomplish both tasks simultaneously.

The mobile phone enables opportunities like these all over the world, by connecting every point in the business “chain” in ways that were not previously possible. The usefulness of the mobile phone also extends beyond merely making phone calls to business contacts. It is increasingly being used in the management and transfer of money. In fact, the development and use of mobile banking and financial services is one of the areas where the developing world has surpassed the developed world.

In 2007, Safaricom launched a financial service in Kenya for mobile phones called M-Pesa (“pesa” is Swahili for “money”). The service enabled Kenyans to transfer money to friends, merchants, and others simply by sending them a text message. Taxi drivers could receive payments without carrying cash. Vendors could be paid without money changing hands. The service grew rapidly and reported over 14 million users by the end of 2011. According to the International Monetary Fund, “M-Pesa now processes more transactions domestically within Kenya than Western Union does globally, and provides mobile banking facilities to more than 70 per cent of the country’s adult population.”18

Educational Opportunities

The mobile phone also provides educational opportunities that would not otherwise be available to people in the developing world. An article in the The Economist describes how mobile phones facilitate education in developing countries like China:

Jim Lee, a manager at Nokia’s Beijing office, says he was surprised to find that university students in remote regions of China were buying Nokia Nseries smart-phones, costing several months of their disposable income. Such handsets are status symbols, but there are also pragmatic reasons to buy them. With up to eight students in each dorm room, phones are often the only practical way for students to access the web for their studies. And smart-phones are expensive, but operators often provide great deals on data tariffs to attract new customers.19

This kind of scenario is becoming increasingly common in developing countries all over the world. In many countries, access to the Internet over a mobile phone is billed by how much you download, rather than requiring an expensive monthly subscription. Because of this, people living in countries where land lines and broadband connections are far beyond their means can often access information over the Internet on their mobile phones at minimal cost.

Personal Technology

In addition to being an indispensable tool for communication, economic advancement, and educational opportunities, the mobile phone is a very personal technology. It is the hub that connects many aspects of a person’s life, including who they know, how they communicate, what music they listen to, what videos they watch, what they have scheduled, and where they are going.

It may be due in part to the highly personal nature of the mobile phone that it is accepted as an “insider” in cultures all over the world. Indians in the Amazon rainforest who still hunt with bows and arrows now also carry their cell phones with them. People visiting the most barren parts of the African wilderness are surprised to hear the familiar ringtone of a Nokia mobile phone, miles from the nearest town. The richest of the rich have mobile phones. The poorest of the poor, living in slums in some of the most destitute parts of the world often have mobile phones too.

Keeping these personal tools charged up can be a challenge in some parts of the world, but necessity is proving to be the mother of invention. Some people charge their phones off car batteries, inverters on bicycles, and solar panels. The back of some phones have a built-in solar panel to charge the phone. People in some African villages that do not have electricity send their mobile phones with the driver of the local “bush taxi” into the nearest town, where he drops them off at the local phone-charging kiosks. At the end of the day, the driver pays the kiosk owner and returns the phones to their respective owners in the village, who then pay him for the service. The process is repeated whenever the phones need charging.

Daily life for people all over the world is being shaped by the mobile phone. Keith Williams, founder of Mobile Advance, worked for many years with nomadic people groups of North Africa. He notes that mobile technology has become such an important factor for these people that they no longer decide where to set up camp on the basis of where they can find water. Rather, campsites are determined by where they can get mobile phone coverage. In The Little Phone That Could, Williams writes:

It took meeting Abu Mohammed at my neighbor’s funeral to realize just how far things had developed. As it turned out, he was a man who fulfilled all the noble ideals of his people—living in the remote desert in a black goat hair tent, having a reputation for hospitality and generosity, and excelling as a big-game tracker and hunter. After the commemorative dinner in the mourning tent, Abu Mohammed took the role of emcee for the evening, regaling us with tales of his hunting exploits and the skills he had used to track down and kill his prey. I was amazed when he produced a mobile phone from his pocket and pulled up a video showing him brandishing his scoped hunting rifle as he posed next to various animals he had bagged. Wow! Not only had this forty-something “man’s man” embodying the ideals of his people taken his video clips and assembled them into an impressive show on his phone, but he had even added a popular local tune in the background. Yes, I had known that the mobile phone was making tremendous inroads among these people, but this meshing of all that was truly and agelessly representative of their culture with the latest and greatest of the 21st century took my breath away!20

The Digital Library of the Global Church

The worldwide rise of the mobile phone and its adoption by people groups all over the planet presents an unprecedented opportunity for the advance of the Gospel. In a very short amount of time, everyone, everywhere in the world will own (or have access to) an Internet-capable mobile phone with a built-in media player. Never before in history have people in nearly every people group in the world equipped themselves with the technology to read, hear, and experience the Word of God. The mobile phone is becoming the digital library of the global church.

Some ministries are starting to realize the incredible potential of the mobile phone for getting multimedia evangelistic content into the pockets of the people they are seeking to reach. A Christian evangelist in India tells the story of trying to witness to Hindu students at a university. The young man he spoke to was not interested in hearing about Jesus. So the evangelist pulled out his phone and started watching an evangelistic video on it. The Hindu student was curious and came over to see what he was watching. “Here,” the evangelist told him, “you can have your own copy.” Using his phone’s Bluetooth radio, he wirelessly transferred a copy of the video to the other phone and told him to watch it and share it with his friends.

Later that day, the student told the evangelist that he had shared the evangelistic video with 40 of his colleagues, who were also Hindus. These university students frequently share videos from phone to phone, rapidly spreading the latest interesting media among themselves. By using the students’ own patterns of social media sharing, the evangelist was able to gain a hearing for the Gospel where one was not possible before.

The mobile phone is more than just a library for consuming content, however, and its usefulness as a tool for the advance of God’s Kingdom is not limited to evangelism. One of the most important qualities of mobile phones is that they are devices to create content, as well as consume it. The capabilities built into many mobile phones today make them ideally suited for creating audio, video, and even text content. It is the Gutenberg press of the oral and developing world.

The mobile phone makes possible the open collaboration of the global church in the task of making disciples of all nations.


1 David Sheff, “Crank It Up,” aug 2008, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.08/loudcloud.html, 4.

2 Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 72-73.

3 “World Development Indicators” (2010), http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators Internet World Stats, 2011. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.

4 Ibid; “World Internet Usage Statistics News and World Population Stats,” 2011, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

5 Bernard Condon, “Babble Rouser,” jul 2008, http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2008/0811/072.html

6 “Asia Pacific Mobile Observatory 2011,” 2011, http://www.gsma.com/mobile-observatory/

7 Tomi Ahonen, “The State of the Union blog for Mobile Industry - all the stats and facts for 2012,” feb 2012, http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/02/the-state-of-the-union-blog-for-mobile-industry-all-the-stats-and-facts-for-2012.html

8 Ahonen, Tomi. “Latest Mobile Numbers for End of Year 2012 - This Is Getting Humongous.” Communities Dominate Brands, 19 dec 2012. http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/12/latest-mobile-numbers-for-end-of-year-2012-this-is-getting-humongous.html.; “Key Global Telecom Indicators for the World Telecommunication Service Sector,” nov 2011, http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/at_glance/KeyTelecom.html.

9 Tomi Ahonen, “Communities Dominate Brands: Latest Annual Edition of TomiAhonen Almanac 2012 is now released. Lets share some data from it,” feb 2012, http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/02/latest-annual-edition-of-tomiahonen-almanac-2012-is-now-released-lets-share-some-data-from-it.html

10 Ahonen, Tomi. “Latest Mobile Numbers for End of Year 2012 - This Is Getting Humongous.” Communities Dominate Brands, 19 dec 2012. http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/12/latest-mobile-numbers-for-end-of-year-2012-this-is-getting-humongous.html.

11 Tomi Ahonen, “Preview of Mobile Stats to End of Year 2010: 5.2 Billion subscribers, 350M people got their first phone this year.,” nov 2010, http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2010/11/preview-of-mobile-stats-to-end-of-year-2010-52-billion-subscribers-350m-people-got-their-first-phone.html

12 Reed, Matthew. “Press Release: Africa Mobile Subscriptions Count to Cross 750 Million Mark in Fourth Quarter of 2012.” Informa Telecoms & Media , 12 nov 2012. http://blogs.informatandm.com/6384/press-release-africa-mobile-subscriptions-count-to-cross-750-million-mark-in-fourth-quarter-of-2012/ .

13 “China mobile phone users exceed 1 billion,” mar 2012, http://www.shanghaidaily.com/nsp/Business/2012/03/30/China%2Bmobile%2Bphone%2Busers%2Bexceed%2B1%2Bbillion/; “Information Note to the Press (Press Release No. 05/2012)” (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, jan 2012), http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReadData/trai/upload/PressReleases/859/Press_Release_Nov-11.pdf; “Analysis — Mobile Asia Congress 2011,” 2011, http://www.wirelessintelligence.com/analysis/2011/11/mobile-asia-congress-2011/

14 “Mobile Web Overtakes PC Web in China.” mobiThinking , 17 oct 2012. http://mobithinking.com/blog/mobile-web-overtake-in-china .

15 Ahonen, Tomi. “Latest Mobile Numbers for End of Year 2012 - This Is Getting Humongous.” Communities Dominate Brands, 19 dec 2012. http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/12/latest-mobile-numbers-for-end-of-year-2012-this-is-getting-humongous.html.; “Asia Pacific Mobile Observatory 2011.”, 10. There are many reasons why the number of mobile subscriptions may outnumber people. In many parts of the world, people have more than one SIM card for their mobile phone, often because it is cheaper to make calls to contacts using the same mobile service. Some people travel to other countries and have different mobile phone subscriptions in each country. Some people have multiple mobile devices (e.g. a smartphone and a tablet), each with its own mobile subscription. In addition to scenarios like these (“multiple subscriptions per person”), it should also be noted that in some parts of the world it is not uncommon for a single mobile subscription to be used by an entire extended family (“multiple people per subscription”).

16 “Snapshot: Developing world accounts for four in every five mobile connections” (2010), https://www.wirelessintelligence.com/print/snapshot/101021.pdf

17 “Gartner Highlights Key Predictions for IT Organizations and Users in 2010 and Beyond,” jan 2010, http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1278413

18 “M-Pesa transactions surpass Western Union moves across the globe  - Business News,” oct 2011, http://www.nation.co.ke/business/news/-/1006/1258864/-/4hyt6qz/-/index.html

19 “Monitor: The meek shall inherit the web,” The Economist (sep 2008), http://www.economist.com/node/11999307

20 Keith Williams, “The Little Phone That Could: Mobile-Empowered Ministry,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 27 (2010): 139–145, http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/27_3_PDFs/mobile_williams.pdf