The way people use technology has been undergoing significant changes in recent years. Just within the last 12 months, I have personally witnessed a dramatic shift in the way people around me use the computers, phones, laptops, and tablets they own. But language-learning technology still remains at least a decade behind the curve.

Mobile devices

In 2007, I bought the first iPhone shortly after its release. At that time, it was mostly just a toy for the cool kids, and it was not uncommon to hear people say "I don't need all that fancy stuff, my phone works just fine" or "yeah it's cool, but I don't have extra money to spend stuff like that." Now, 5 years later, everyone has a smartphone. When you go to the store, non-smartphones are actually hard to find!

In 2010, I bought the first iPad the afternoon it was released, and once again it was seen as just another expensive tech toy. Once again, it became common for people to offer condescending opinions about how impractical, frivolous, or unnecessary such a purchase was. But now, just 2 years later, tablets are everywhere.

I know more people who do own an iPad, TouchPad, Kindle Fire, or other tablet than people I know who do not, and I don't know anyone who doesn't have a smartphone. And in the last year, I've seen all of these mobile devices become the new standard way of using the web. In the past, checking your email or playing a game meant sitting in a specific location, tied to a specific machine. Today, most of those machines are hidden in closets, covered in dust.

When people want to use email or Facebook, or buy something on e-Bay or Amazon, they don't go to a computer, they just pull out a device. The result is a growing trend that people don't bother with computers any more. In just the last year, I've witnessed this trend first-hand. I have several friends who have left their laptops in the corner, untouched for months at a time, while using their phones for all online activity. Even I barely bother to open my laptop more than once per week anymore, preferring to use my iPad for most things.

Old companies are... old

In the '80s, personal computers were big, ugly boxes that ran productivity apps and games. In the '90s, the mouse made computers more user-friendly, learning programs gained popularity. Then in the '00s, affordable laptops made portable computing a reality. Unfortunately, all of these leaps forward were built around the same core device — the personal computer — so businesses never really had to learn anything new.

But the mobile revolution is happening on different hardware and different platforms. The new way of doing things requires people to learn new things, and it often means that companies need to hire new talent. But they don't know they need new knowledge and new talent, because they still have the same old management. They're still trying to succeed at the business they invented 20 years ago, rather than learning to compete in the world that exists today.

Where is the mobile version of Rosetta Stone? Why was Pimsleur Unlimited (a fairly new product) designed only for the desktop? Why is Transparent's new online product limited to web browsers that support Flash? Why are there still no language learning books for Kindle? (Yes, I know that Colloquial does release Kindle books, but they're just fed in by an OCR which causes them to lose all non-ASCII characters... an absolute sin for language-learning.) And why aren't the book-plus-CD publishers releasing interactive iBooks?

Why are the only language-related mobile apps nothing more than electronic flashcards?

The reason is simple. It's the same reason that the music industry fought against Napster and iTunes. It's the same reason that the MPAA tries to make criminals out of everyone. The problem is that technology has changed the world, and all of those old businesses are still run by the same old people with the same old ideas. Even when they manage to do something new, it's usually nothing more than a token effort.

We need a startup

The language-learning sector needs startups. We need people with exciting ideas, who understand how the modern world works, to create the apps that will set the example for others. There's a huge opportunity for someone in the language learning space to do what Angry Birds and Instagram have done.

Everyone wants to learn a new language. People are put off by the big price tags on products like Rosetta Stone. People are put off by the daunting proposition of making time for books and study. People are put off by language learning because it doesn't fit into their schedule or their budget, but I think almost everyone would be willing to give $0.99 for a product that fits on their phone and can help them learn a language. How much more would people pay if it was social and fun!

I'm willing to be a part of that. In fact, I would enthusiastically be a part of that. But I'm a developer, not a businessman, so I can't do it alone. If anyone has motivation, ideas, and/or resources to contribute to such a project, contact me. Email me. Tweet me. Leave a comment. Let's figure out how to make this happen.



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