Nathan Eagle’s The Mobile Web is NOT helping the Developing World… and what we can do about it provides food for thought for those who believe that web access in developing countries — generally thought to be a good thing — will happen automatically. His main point:
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.
In other words, the evolving infrastructure in developing countries just doesn’t support the type of data and user interface we’re growing to expect via devices such as the iPhone and other web enabled portable devices. And that infrastructure is going to be around a long time.
Eagle’s strategy to counter this is to work through the existing infrastructure (and device population) via initiatives that depend on clever use of text messaging and voice messages. These are designed to provide access to a variety of data services configured for retrieval and distribution via existing cellphones and the existing mix of keypad and voice based menus. These services include audio homepages and voice based catalog purchasing, weather, and produce prices.
An added bonus of this approach: it can at least partially overcome the lack of English literacy in developing countries.
I admit that my initial reaction upon reading about these development efforts was, “Oh, great, here’s some guy that’s helping to paint his market into a corner by prolonging the viability of obsolete technology.”
Now I’m not so sure that’s an appropriate response. After all, look at how popular Twitter has become among and the rich set of applications that has evolved around its “microblogging” parameters. And look at the sophistication of the services that Google is shoehorning into its new iPhone interface.
Granted, an iPhone is not what you would call a “simple” device, but compared with having to lug around a heavy laptop, as a first-generation product it’s proving to be a viable tool for a lot of people and is bound to spawn imitators and cheaper alternatives. That will be good for everyone.
Meanwhile, the approach Eagle describes is a clever one that makes use of existing technologies. Yes, it means developing and maintaining a new set of services to serve as an intermediary between various data sources (e.g., RSS feeds) and an existing population of text-messaging-capable cellphones. Is that necessarily bad given the today’s proliferation of continually specializing interactive technologies?