The tech industry has long been divided between the efficacies of low-price, easy-entry products for widespread adoption and high-priced, premium products that allow access to only those with the means to pay. The viability of sitting on the latter end of the spectrum however, has recently been put to the test.
COVID-19 caused three years of digital transformation to happen in just three months. Business continuity became a buzzword and indicator for how well a company could navigate the sudden shift to remote work. And it became clear early on that those who had heavily invested in digital transformation initiatives before the onset of the pandemic had a better chance of survival in the “new normal.” But many of the digital applications that enable this kind of survival come at a hefty price, which makes them inaccessible to a large number of organizations and consumers who now need those services the most.
For the basic digital applications that people rely on, “app gentrification” is not the way towards creating a fair and democratized Internet ecosystem. In fact, just like gentrification in the physical world, digital gentrification will result in gaps in technical capability, education, and access to resources.
For employers, remote work is the safest bet in the face of a global pandemic. The collaboration and work management market has become extremely favorable as the demand for remote technologies continues to grow. The potential for large profits at a time where many companies have had to quickly pivot their market strategies has drawn much attention, but has done very little to make technology more accessible.
Finding the right technology that is within budget and can cater to a company’s specific needs and operations is a long process. Unfortunately, time was a luxury many companies did not have at the onset of the pandemic as many began incorporating remote work policies for the first time. This was done hastily without much consideration given to the tools, connectivity options, and available IT support needed to maintain productivity levels. Premium products that tout the best user experience and functionality are often out of reach given the high price point but are essential to keeping the doors open. They are also disproportionately designed to target the needs and resources of larger businesses, leaving smaller ones with no other choice but to rely on cookie-cutter, complementary software.
IT security for an at-home workforce is an additional issue organizations have had to grapple with. While most businesses are not likely to send each employee new networking equipment, more established companies can afford robust security software that is hardwired into corporate laptops and centrally managed by an available IT department. Smaller organizations are more likely to use some sort of bring-your-own-device model without security software preinstalled. These organizations are at higher risk of cyber attacks and ransomware that could eventually have a negative impact on current and future customer relationships and perceived brand image should a breach occur. In fact, research from Exabeam showed that nearly half of small- to medium-sized enterprises surveyed lost at least $38K in business revenue due to cyber attacks and security breaches during the pandemic. “Companies are grappling with the security fallout from an unexpected shift to remote work, but it’s business as usual for cyber criminals and foreign adversaries with unprecedented opportunity,” according to Exabeam chief security strategist Steve Moore.
Businesses are not alone in the accelerated digital transformation journey. Distance learning has skyrocketed, with many parents having to bridge the tech gap and ensure their children can access all the devices and applications needed to keep up with an online course load. Availability of high-speed Internet for lower income and rural areas has been a longstanding issue, yet it apparently takes a pandemic for policymakers to figure out how to support affordable and universal access to the Internet. Fortunately, global edtech innovators are making headway with tools that acknowledge this tech gap and are specifically designed for disconnected or low-resource communities. For example, programs like Kolibri and Rumie are social impact-driven startups that have partnered with communities, NGOs, and partner organizations around the world to bring free education tools to low-resource areas. Solutions are out there, but tools designed for refugee camps and orphanages can’t bear the weight of a country’s education system’s failures.
The at-home learning experience for low-income families can no longer be disregarded. Schools and other education institutions must work with the government body to get the right policies in place. This means considering the impact high-priced premium products and software have on the widening skills gap we are facing today, and supporting a market where there can be a competitive advantage to offering high-tech, low-cost solutions. Ultimately, recreating the classroom experience online will only work if access to technology is democratized.
We are seeing a clear “haves” and “have nots” division when it comes to access to proper devices and key services. A lot of this is to do with our perception that high-end technology is expensive, yet some of our greatest innovations — like the Internet and Google’s suite of tools –are free to all with access to a device.
It’s going to take a group effort of elected officials, business leaders, and educational experts to make sure there is a level playing field for everyone regardless of wealth and location. Unless everyone has access to the best apps and services with proper hardware, the digital divide will continue to widen. A world where this is a reality means shutting the door on brilliant minds across the spectrum of talent. At a heightened time of diversity and inclusion, this is an unsustainable and outdated strategy at best.