The Meek Shall Inherit the Web -- via their mobiles, no less

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Sep 08, 2008

MobileActive is a member of a new working group on the 'mobile web' for social development. (Discloure: we underwrote a recent event in Brazil of the group). Now the Economist has written a piece on the working group. Here are some excerpts and some thoughts and critiques of this effort.

The Economist states the case:

".. the number of mobile phones that can access the internet is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially in the developing world. In China, for example, over 73m people, or 29% of all internet users in the country, use mobile phones to get online. And the number of people doing so grew by 45% in the six months to June—far higher than the rate of access growth using laptops, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre.... It is not just China. Opera Software, a firm that makes web-browser software for mobile phones, reports rapid growth in mobile-web browsing in developing countries. The number of web pages viewed in June by the 14m users of its software was over 3 billion, a 300% increase on a year earlier. The fastest growth was in developing countries including Russia, Indonesia, India and South Africa."

There is more and more data on this and the numbers are indeed impressive.  A recent report by Nielssen found that the BRIC countries -- Brazil, India, Russia and China -- show some of the fastest growing rates of mobile Internet access, primarily for entertainment.  The graph above show mobile web growth rates and while many regions are not seeing as impressive a growth rate as Asia, growth is consistent across the developing world - at least until the end of the first quarter in 2008. Admob has a mobile web ad tracking report every month and notes that "Mobile Internet usage is growing across Africa, with particularly strong growth in Nigeria and Egypt. AdMob has seen traffic increase 21 percent since the company began tracking the Africa market in Q1 2008."

It is interesting to note, however, that with rising food prices, phone useage and particularly expensive data services will see slowing growth rates. For Africa, mobile web use is already slowing in the second quarter of 2008. 

The Economist again:

"Jim Lee, a manager at Nokia's Beijing office, says he was surprised to find that university students in remote regions of China were buying Nokia Nseries smart-phones, costing several months of their disposable income. Such handsets are status symbols, but there are also pragmatic reasons to buy them. With up to eight students in each dorm room, phones are often the only practical way for students to access the web for their studies. And smart-phones are expensive, but operators often provide great deals on data tariffs to attract new customers.

While this may be true for emerging mega-markest like China, most countries in Africa are not providing any deals yet as the markets there are not nearly as saturated. Web pages eat about 1 MB of data and a five-minute YouTube clip can gobble up about 3 MB. A combination of Web video and surfing several times a day can easily be 8 or more MB. With expensive and opaque data costs across much of Africa, mobile data is still very much beyond the price capacity of most users -- including NGOS. 

Telcoms in Africa are realizing that value-added services are their competitive advantage as competition and penetration rates increase.  One Office, a service from Celtel, for example, allows subscribers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to access Internet services for a flat fee whatever their location.

At the end of 2007, a colleague in Kenya published an article on that noted eloquently that the mobile web is not ready for development and that it is a fallacy to focus on it.

Nathan Eagle wrote:

The phones that are designed and marketed for the 'developing world' today aren't data enabled, they have no browser or any ability to function as a traditional data device. We're dumping hundreds of millions of devices into these regions that are essentially crippled - and their legacy (the average life span of a phone in Africa is many times that of it's Western counterpart) will affect mobile internet usage in these regions throughout the next decade. Furthermore, in the small Kenyan village where I live it's significantly less than 1 in 10 phones that can support the traditional 'mobile Web' experience, and it's probably closer to 1 in 1000 phones that have ever successfully connected to the web. Most of the phones I see in the village were originally manufactured well before 2003. (The most popular selling phone in my village is an old Ericsson that stopped being made back in 2001.) The local mobile operators should take some blame as well - many simply don't have the equipment or expertise to role out a data network on top of their rapidly expanding GSM net. It took me over 10 days of phone calls with my local Kenyan operator to get my phone activated for their new EDGE network. Most people I know give up after the first couple of hours of configuration. And that's assuming they actually have the right phone...

Costs are still too high today and handsets too old for the mobile web to be anything but an add-on and out of reach for most people and NGOs in most of the truly poor coutries of the world.Given this, should we then not focus much more on applcations that are possible now and can reap immediate benfit? 

The Economist goes on to its next point: 

"For the W3C, M-PESA and its ilk [mobile payment services ] are harbingers of far mor sophisticated services to come. If mobile banking is possible using a simple system of text messages, imagine what might be possible with full web access. But it will require standards to ensure that services and devices are compatible. Stéphane Boyera, co-chair of the new W3C interest group, says its aim is to track the social impact of the mobile web in the developing world, to ensure that the web's technical standards evolve to serve this rapidly emerging constituency. The right approach, Mr Boyera argues, is not to create "walled gardens" of specially adapted protocols for mobile devices, but to make sure that as much as possible of the information on the web can be accessed easily on mobile phones."

However, in is report from the 2006 meeting of the consortium, the group itself said:

While everybody agreed on the great opportunity during this event to gather people working on new technologies, and people with field expertise and experience, it is clear that there is still a gap between these two communities in terms of the potential of the technology, and the reality of needs and usage on the field....It is very important not to forget the real goal of providing ICT in developing countries. The point is not at all to connect people to the Web but to provide services (health, banking, government service, education, business,...) which would improve the life of people in developing economies. Using mobile phones as the support for services is clearly considered the right way to go. However, using the Web and Web technologies as the software platform for developing those services is not yet a reality."

At the next meeting in 2008, the group noted: 

"Many governments are still not considering the potential of the mobile platform, and therefore are not providing the appropriate regulatory context that would trigger or facilitate the development of mobile services. It was acknowledged that the regulatory context, and the requirements governments put on mobile operators could be either an enabler or a barrier. It is therefore essential in the future to explore the type of regulation and policies which could serve as an enabler. For that task, it will be essential to involve both Government representatives (federal and local) and specialists in regulation and policies, which were barely represented in the workshop."

So what are then exactly the goals of this working group?   While we think that better coordination and collaboration among NGOs and other players is critical -- a point noted repeatedly during the workshop and a major goal, of course, of MobileActive08, our event in Johannesburg in October, costs and policy are two issues that, in many ways, trump the approach for mobile web standards the issue that is W3C domain expertise. 

More importantly, the definition of what the Mobile Web Iniative is talking about the 'mobile web' is not clear.  The W3C group seems to conflate other services that are, for example, stricly SMS-based in its charge.  However, in that case standards - that what the W3C as an industry consortium is good at -- are not really needed, they exist already. As do 3.5 billion phones that are able to text now.  It would behove us all to be very clear in defining what we mean by mobile web versus mobile apps to strategically harness resources and expertise and collaboration where there is actually traction, activity, and where focused efforts make sense -- all driven by what mobile users in target countries actually do (as opposed to Western wishful thinking).  

Nathan Eagle again:

This is why we're building the mobile web experience using SMS and Asterisk (voice) based applications across East Africa. Taking content from the internet (via rss feeds, text crawling, etc) and piping it to users via SMS isn't a new idea - but it's one that is exponentially growing in the developing world. In Kenya there are countless SMS-based applications that provide subscribers with a different mobile web experience: helping people find jobs, keep up to date with sports scores, get weather information, find a date, get information about commodity prices, etc... All content we expect from a mobile web-experience, but now it can be accessed on any phone in Kenya. I don't believe it is wrong... to hype the potential of the mobile web in the developing world; however I am doubtful that forcing inappropriate, expensive, and fragile technology on these billions of mobile phone users is realistic or beneficial. Instead, I believe we need to start thinking about how to leverage the existing infrastructure of phones present throughout these regions to serve as portals to the internet for the masses.

We believe that the goals of the W3C consortium  -- collaboration, resources, and community -- are good ones, though they are not exactly in the domain expertise of a group that is focused on standard development and comprised of industry and academics with no NGO activey at the table, currently. 

We encourage better definition of what is meant by "mobile web" versus other "mobile services" and a more crisp discussion about how this broad charge fits into the work of the WC3. We also encourage better NGO representation and hope to bring this to the table. 

To that end we again invite key leaders from the group to MobileActive08 where many of the stated goals are being advanced with hundreds of NGOs at the table where we will have discussions with key stakeholders on mobile applications, areas of strategic focus, and the mobile web - much more narrowly defined. We hope to see the Mobile Web Consortium there!


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