A Mobile Digital Arms Race

Within a few weeks of writing this article, Google announced its NEXUS One smartphone. A smartphone is a smart cell phone because of its desktop computer functionality on a mobile, hand-held device. The Google announcement got a mixed reception in the telecommunication industry. Typically, a user chooses a smartphone design based on its features and accessories and then seeks out a telephone service provider or carrier that offers that device with an affordable plan, local accessibility, and bandwidth.

With the many dynamic combinations, users are frequently trading in phones and changing carriers. In recent years, providers — including Apple with its iPhone, RIM with its Blackberry, Nokia with its Symbian, Palm with its Pre, and soon Microsoft — have offered a more integrated solution with their hardware, operating system (OS), and third-party applications.

What caught the interest of industry pundits about Google’s announcement was the company’s move toward an integrated smartphone service, especially with the addition of its own hardware. Like other integrated smartphone vendors, Google now had its own device — NEXUS One, coupled with its own OS, Android. The entrance of Google has added a new level of intrigue to what could be called a mobile digital arms (applications, resources, markets, and sales) race. Google’s smartphone integration extends its infrastructure that includes an online search engine with advertisements, maps, and voice over the Internet. With its extended infrastructure, Google can now tailor information, including advertisements, to end users. The company could literally provide real-time feedback from the surrounding environment to a user based on personal buying habits and social preferences. The evolving infrastructure could provide the long-sought customer relationship management in a geospatial context.

A Fundamental Shift

The shift in advertisement dollars to the Internet coincides with the rapid decline of newspaper readership and television network viewership. As advertisers seek out the Internet, a company offering a fully-integrated solution would be particularly attractive. Furthermore, by opening its Android OS to third-party developers, Google is ensuring a proliferation of applications for its smartphone.

Until very recently, smartphones were limited by accessibility and bandwidth. Bandwidth refers to the rate of information transfer to and from a device. With the expansion of telephone carriers’ wired and wireless infrastructure, such as 3G and 4G networks, and improvements in computer technology, limitations to accessibility and bandwidth are quickly becoming a thing of the past for desktop or mobile units. In fact, it is somewhat humorous watching competing companies promoting the advantages of accessibility vs. bandwidth when both factors are required for good service.

Accepting that accessibility and bandwidth will be ubiquitous in the marketplace, and that single-company integrated solutions will happen in the near future, what does all this have to do with precision agriculture? Well, first, the long-awaited information “highways” will finally be a reality. Having only a single, hand-held, smartphone with broadband Internet access, users can communicate with the entire precision agricultural world. Add GPS capability to the same mobile unit, the same users can view field operations through a geospatial lens. Toss in some custom applications, and the same unit can help users in their precision agricultural decision-making. Finally, combining all these features with online, point-of-sale advertising tailored to locations and buying habits, users end up with quite an attractive package.

This recent convergence of hardware, software, communication, and information technologies is unprecedented. A precision agricultural user will truly be linked to a world of possibilities. It is not hard to imagine a grower as a user transmitting critical data from the field or an image about a crop to a consultant. The consultant, in turn, would analyze the data or image and transmit back management recommendations to the grower. One could also imagine the same crop data and image being shared over a secure, social network in an effort to solicit help from neighboring growers or a trusted segment of the agricultural community.

The real-time exchange of data, facts, and knowledge over the information highways and between social networks will provide a grower the ultimate connectivity to the precision agricultural world. It is important to note that while exchanges between growers and agricultural stakeholders have existed for some time, the potential speed and amount of information in an electronic transaction is new.

Convergent Realities

The discussed convergence of technologies will be inherently disruptive to existing decision-making practices. Consequently, while the mechanics of sharing all forms of information over the Internet via a smartphone will be realized in the near future, determining the proper value and use of that information will take some time. Just like new technologies introduced in the past, there will inevitability be a “Wild West” mentality among early participants. Without any governing principles accompanying the exchanged information from multiple sources, contributed data may be suspect and management recommendations may be questioned by a significant segment of the online precision agricultural community. This interplay of contributors and critics of information will continue for some time until governing principles are in place and facts supporting positions are transparently accessible by the entire community.

After this early phase of time-consuming, risky experimentation, order will begin to be self-imposed on the entire enterprise. Contributed information — be it data, facts, or knowledge — will undergo validity checking before being accepted by the online community. Furthermore, each new contribution will be compared to previous entries or positions for consistency and applicability. In some sense, contributors will undergo a peer review much like scientific journals. With a collective stamp of approval by the online community, users will have a high comfort level with online information.

It is important to note that while there are billions of cell phones, the vast majority of users engage in social networking and not business activities. Smartphones today are just beginning to evolve into an integral tool of business. The vision presented in this article of a mobile solution for integrated data, images, recommendations, and ads will only be realized with the cooperation of a large majority of the stakeholders making up the precision agricultural community. Without their participation, there would be mechanics but no content or direction.

The emphasis on content with future smartphone users only reinforces that importance of the “technology tune-up” theme of this issue. Whether communicated through print or delivered electronically over the Internet, innovations in precision agriculture will be one of the motivating factors in a mobile world.

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