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To much fanfare, Microsoft has launched its Windows Phone 7 operating system -- and the coverage has generally been pretty positive. Microsoft has previously been eclipsed by Symbian, Apple, and Android in the mobile operating system business, but now it looks like they've hit the right note.

Microsoft's involvement (and the money they spent to get it right) is another reminder of the global rise of the smart phone and the mobile Internet. In the West, people have rightly obsessed about the digital divide, but in a matter of few years, much of that chasm has been spanned -- although of course there's still a long way to go.

Now people all around the world will be carrying around computers in their pockets with 1 GHZ processor speeds. (That's about the processing power of an average PC five years ago.) If you're in any doubt about the extent of global mobile penetration, check out these stats. They're astonishing. From NDN.

A recent series of studies by mobileYouth reveals that mobile penetration among youth aged 20-29 has surpassed 100% in various developing regions. Across the planet, youth will spend $350bn on mobile technology this year -- ten times the size of the global recorded music industry. This growth is spearheaded by the developing world, where the mobile youth market will grow 25 times faster than that of the United States and Europe by 2012.

It’s clear that young people are driving the mobile revolution in the developing world, but what’s driving these astounding adoption rates? One reason worth mentioning (by no means is it the only one) is the ever-increasing price war waged by mobile operators in developing countries. In an endless battle to combat “youth churn” (30% of young mobile users across the world switch providers every year), mobile operators compete viciously to lower prices and keep clients.

And if you're in any doubt about the transformative power of mobile phones, just check out the weekly wrap of mobile news at NDN or check out the mobileactive.org blog for news about how mobile phones are allowing African villagers to make payments or helping Indonesians get better health care.

While Twitter (unfairly) got all the headlines in Iran during last years postelection unrest, the truly transformative technology was actually the combination of camera-equipped mobile phones and video-sharing sites. (Of course, as we've all learnt from the "Twitter Revolution," I wouldn't want to overstate the effect of those tools.)

But more than Twitter, mobile phones probably did more to get people out onto the streets, via clips uploaded onto YouTube, or passed around on handsets. At a recent conference on liberation technologies at Stanford, Mehdi Yahyanejad, a post-doctoral researcher, argued that YouTube was the more critical technology in Iran last year.

But no cyberutopianism here. As much as mobiles will be used to shame bullying army officers or exposing election violations, they'll also be used for some pretty nasty stuff. There were plenty of reports from Kyrgyzstan this year about mobile video of atrocities committed by ethnic Kyrgyz or ethnic Uzbeks being passed around. (Good, of course, for bearing witness, but bad if that footage is used to incite further unrest.) One of our correspondents in Osh was given CDs full of footage, all shot on mobile phones. As I mentioned before, imagine the Rwandan genocide turbo-charged by inflammatory mobile footage of ethnic atrocities.

Much of the debate about circumvention tools (proxy servers and the like) seems focused on PCs, but I haven't come across much research about mobile circumvention tools apart from what the Guardian Project is doing with Android.

No doubt, there'll be millions of pirated copies of Windows Phone 7 around the world very very soon.

UPDATE: "Wall Street Journal" reports about "several little-known Indian handset makers [releasing] low-cost devices that include the technology giant's Android operating system in coming months." Smartphones for everyone.
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