The importance of the mobile phone to developing countries
The reach of the mobile phone by far outnumbers any other communication device. There is today about 4 billion mobile subscribers and half of the worlds population is estimated to have the possibility to access the Internet through the mobile by 2010. This should be compared to about 1 billion PCs accessing the Internet. In addition the PC penetration is very low in developing countries. In Africa the mobile penetration was about 30% by the end of 2007 and is estimated by Africa & Middle East Telecom Week to pass 50% already 2010. This should be compared with the overall Internet usage penetration in Africa which according to Internet World Stats was only 5.6% by the end of 2008. The primary access point to the Internet will for the majority be the mobile and not a PC. Already today all phones have the capability to receive and send sms giving messaging services a superior reach but there are clear limitations with sms compared to Internet services.
There are a number of issues to address in developing countries. These are different from one country or region to the other and the possibilities to find solutions are not the same. There are some general needs, such as political stability and democracy, education, working financial system, health care, distribution of wealth, human rights, transparency etc. The capability of the mobile phone to act as a tool to educate and gain knowledge as well as spreading viewpoints and communicate with the rest of the world, support but do of course not directly solve all the issues. This importance of the mobile phone has been recognised by organisations and agencies such as the UN and USAID, which support and reward new mobile services suitable to meet the needs of developing countries. The community MobileActive.org work actively in trying to increase the effectiveness of NGOs through mobile technology.
In industrialised areas such as the US and Europe, we presently debate the LTE (4G), iPhone, app stores and advanced smart phone (high end device) applications as the solution to increase usage of advanced and a new generation of mobile services. These new services will not for the foreseeable future be a solution for developing countries. They are many times too costly and are most often not possible to use independently of device and operator. What’s needed are services that give access to the Internet, the whole Internet and not just the very limited mobile Internet sites, through all mobile phones including the lowest level of Internet capable phones. There should also be possibilities to easily publish content directly through the mobile. These services also have to be quite cost effective so that they can be offered for free to the end user. The services also have to be able to work on more or less any phone and phone operating system solving the issue with different mobile technologies. Even though it is important that all Internet sites are made available they still have to be transformed into a format that: substantially decreases the data capacity need; makes them readable and possible to brows on the small mobile screen; takes into account that there are no real keyboards on simple phones. Services that from many aspects may be brilliant, but can only be used on smart phones or a limited number of phones, will not penetrate these regions. What’s needed is a general Internet service platform that can migrate the vast user base from just using sms to taking advantage of the full Internet, but done in a way so that it’s easy to use and gives a decent user experience when using quite simple low end phones. I believe the Universal Mobile Interface concept is what can make all this happen.
Let’s invite the rest of the world to the Internet by making it possible to access the web over simple mobile phones. I’m convinced that we then put a very powerful tool in the hands of the people to support them in their ambition to improve their situation. In addition, this will also unleash massive innovation based on specific needs, as well as local limitations. Utilising a general platform that works independent of device and operator will also create an environment where viral and very fast distribution of information and services is possible. I really look forward to see how this can spur development and awareness.