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Meditating on Harvard's mobile strategy, Eric Schmidt and "Lost"

Harvard in the palm of your hand! Just in time for the start of classes, the most Ivy-ed of the ivory towers has launched a mobile initiative that delivers university content — campus maps, the course catalog, a people directory, news and student dining, to start with — to mobile devices. Harvard’s mobile strategy is a joint effort of the Office of the University CIO, Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, and Harvard Alumni Affairs and Development. The first products are a native iPhone application and a mobile Web application accessible by browser on any smartphone device or feature phone. Modest enough, you say, but in the university’s view, the start of something big.

According to its press release, Harvard’s mobile strategy is “a response to the rapid worldwide shift toward a ‘mobile-first’ culture of information consumption.” “Mobile technology represents a profound evolution in the way people connect to information, services, culture and community,” Harvard President Drew Faust is quoted as saying. “Increasingly, students, faculty and staff members carry the Internet in their pockets and purses. This unified Harvard mobile experience allows individuals within and beyond our community to access the information they need to know, anywhere, anytime.”

Harvard is not the first school to adapt to this profound evolution.

Indeed, the Harvard offerings are being developed as part of iMobileU, a collaborative framework based on the MIT Mobile Web Open Source Project, formed last year to allow universities to jointly develop mobile-friendly apps. In the commercial world, the term mobile strategy has become an agenda item. Even a conservative mutual fund company like Vanguard is determined to adapt to an information anytime, anywhere world.

So, does Harvard’s official endorsement of mobile computing mean the world has changed? As I was debating whether the university’s mobile strategy merited a blog mention, another pronouncement showed up in my inbox: “Google CEO Eric Schmidt delivers closing international keynote at the IFA 2010 conference: ‘The future is now,’ says Schmidt.”

According to the press release, Schmidt “took to the keynote stage” at the world’s largest consumer electronics and home appliances trade show to preview new technologies. The marvels included tools for Android-powered smartphones that translate conversations from one language to another as one speaks.

But it was not the preview that boggles the mind, so much as the here and now. More than 200,000 Android-powered smartphones are activated every day, and the Internet will soon deliver information to three or four billion people, “not just the elite,” via smartphones, Schmidt said. (His observation echoed a 1939 keynote at IFA [the German name translates into “International Fair of Broadcasting Services”] by Albert Einstein, said Jens Heithecker, IFA’s executive director: “Einstein was talking about radio, the new technology of the time. He said, ‘technology enables communication and communication connects people.'”)

Everything that rises must converge, is what I thought, and that naturally sent me scurrying to Google to check the reference. What I found was that the pronouncement was made first by religious philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Future of Man: “At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

English majors and viewers of the “Lost” episode “Incident, Part 1”, will more readily identify the prophetic words as the title of a short story collection by Flannery O’Connor. (Jacob is reading it while sitting on a park bench at the moment John Locke plummets out of a window.) O’Connor’s harrowing stories mostly leave the salvation part of the quotation unsaid. They examine people who are forced to confront a dramatic shift in their world view — in the case of the title story, racial integration — and who sometimes do not survive as a result of that confrontation.

For those among us who can stand the ascent, however, mobility holds out the promise of making a multitude upwardly mobile, at least culturally: Harvard in the palms of our hands.

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