W3CMobile Web Initiative

W3C International Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries
Executive Summary

This is the report of the W3C Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries, held in Bangalore, India on 5 and 6 December 2006. The Workshop was hosted by Jataayu Software, generously sponsored by INRIA (Platinum Sponsor) and TNO (Silver Sponsor), and received financial support from the European Commission's IST Programme under the 3GWeb project.

Platinum Sponsor

logo inria

Silver Sponsor



Following a proposal of the MWI Steering Council, W3C held an international Workshop to start investigating the idea of using the Mobile Web as a means to bridge the "digital divide" and to leverage access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for populations in developing economies. Here are some observations that helped motivate the Workshop:

In light of these observations, the aim of the Workshop was to understand the people's needs and expectations, and the specific challenges and issues of accessing the Web from a mobile phone as a primary and often sole platform, so that the potential of resolving the divide becomes reality.

The Workshop gathered experts in mobile technologies, and NGOs, organizations or individuals with ground experience and expertise in the digital divide in order to initiate discussions between the two communities and to gather use cases and potential challenges to be resolved.

W3C issued the call for participation in this Workshop in September 2006.

Executive Summary

The Workshop took place at the Capitol Hotel in Bangalore, India. The participants included handset manufacturers, mobile browser makers, major software companies, local Indian companies and universities, and organizations working on ICT projects within rural communities in India and Africa.

The Workshop began with an introductory session presenting the rationale and the aim of the Workshop, the view of Tim Berners-Lee on this topic (video). Participants viewed a short film that introduced the major challenges and opportunities of ICT for the developing world through a journey from Dakar to Timbuktu.

Then, over the two days, five panels presented different view of the challenges of accessing the Web through a mobile phone in the developing world. The first one discussed on the potential mobile applications to help rural communities and participate in their development. The second panel discussed some challenges about network technologies and potential solutions. The third panel was on technology - what mobile browsers can do, statistics on mobile web usage in developing countries, and Java technologies to facilitate mobile applications development. The fourth panel presented different initiatives, mostly in Africa, to understand what are the usage and needs of people from the developing world in terms of ICT. The last panel was on specific UI Design problems within mobile phones, particularly with respect to internationalization.

Each day of the Workshop also ended with a discussion session. The first day, we broke in two groups to focus discussions on :

The minutes of the two groups (group 1 and group 2) summarize this discussion.

The last session of the Workshop was dedicated to a general discussion on the output of the Workshop, the potential next steps, and the lessons learned during the two days. This executive summary will present in details the result of this last session.

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. The Workshop was an important step toward further cooperation between the two communities, and one of the important points is that successful ICT projects relies on the cooperation of experts from both area, as well as the need to also integrate business developers.

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.

As of today, the most appropriate way to provide such e-services on mobile phones is with SMS-based applications. The reasons for that are numerous :

Of course, there is a general agreement on the limitations of such applications :

Adopting the Web as the platform for developing future services requires work on these blocking factors which have been identified :

That said, there is a general agreement that the Web is providing unique opportunities which may facilitate the bridging of the digital divide:

In order to take advantages of these strengths, a potential solution could be to explore how lightweight mobile browsers could fit on low-end phones. These could be text-browsers like at the early age of the Web, or similar products.

From the "human" angle, we are missing today information details on the exact needs and usage of ICT in developing countries. That said, it is very important to enable local communities to develop their own applications that would fit their exact needs. Having an easy-to-use, easy-to-develop standardized platform is a good point, however teaching people how to develop applications is essential. Even though there are lots of mobile phones compared to the number of PCs, it is very rare to see Mobile application development courses in the universities of these countries. Developing such courses would be a key factor to enable local people to develop applications fitting the needs of their own country.

Finally, it is also important to cope with a problem that is general to all platforms which is internationalization of content : being able to enter data and view content in local languages.

Next Steps

Participants identified the following potential next steps: