The Mobile Web is NOT helping the Developing World... and what we can do about it. By Nathan Eagle

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 05, 2007

I attend an increasing number of keynotes where CEOs and EVPs of both major mobile handset manufacturers and mobile operators trumpet their role in bringing the internet to the bottom of the pyramid in the developing world. It's a total fallacy.

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...

This is not to say that these billions of mobile phones do not have the potential to access content from the web - rather, the traditional browser-based paradigm of internet usage does not cater to them. The idea that the mobile web consists exclusively of mobile devices running web-browsers identical to the web experience we are used to with IE/Firefox is simply wrong. Throwing more and more resources towards creating devices for the developing world that can emulate the PC browsing experience is misguided. The 2 billion phones being used in the developing world are really great at making and receiving voice calls and text messages: Why not shape the internet experience to meet the specs of every phone's inherent functionality (voice!) rather than requiring devices to have specs that quite frankly aren't going to be realistic for many years to come?

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.

While the SMS protocol is standard on all GSM phones, navigating the web via text message is clumsy at best. It requires users not only to have to type english text using an unintuitive numeric keypad, but perhaps more importantly it assumes literacy. Jonathan Ledlie and I are starting to build an audio equivalent to the web that can be accessed from any phone in the world. We're enabling people to make audio homepages where they can record interactive content (in any of Kenya's 1000+ languages) to whomever they wish; telling the family history, listing their CV, anything that the traditional homepage can be used for. But perhaps our most promising audio application is moSoko (soko is marketplace in Swahili) - like Craig's List, but for East Africa and through an audio interface. This type of interface has several major advantages: it is completely free for any Kenyan to use (in most developing countries it is free to receive calls as well as to "flash phone numbers), it has no literacy requirements, and any mobile phone subscriber in the country can use the system regardless of the type of phone, service plan, or network. It's a great way to get all sorts of information to people (not just Craig's List items, but weather, produce prices, etc) and also a way to advertise to a very captive audience.

(Flashing" someone means calling them but hanging up before the connection is established, in order to get them to call you back.)

I don't believe it is wrong for these mobile phone executives (or press) 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.

Reposted by permission. Nathan Eagle is currently developing a mobile phone programming curriculum at the University of Nairobi, while simultaneously pursuing his research as a Research Scientist at MIT.

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