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:
- today almost 80% of the World
population is covered by a GSM network,
- more than 2 billion
people already have access to a mobile phone,
- high speed mobile data networks are available,
- we are seeing increasingly-affordable
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
W3C issued the call for
participation in this Workshop in September 2006.
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
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
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
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 :
- Easy to use (everybody knows how to send an SMS)
- Low and predictable cost (no cost for receiving a message, low and
known cost for sending a message)
- Availability on all phones
Of course, there is a general agreement on the limitations of such
- Low capabilities (text-only, limited size, basic services like single
query - answer, ...)
- Interoperability problems between operators
Adopting the Web as the platform for developing future services requires
work on these blocking factors which have been identified :
- Problems of availability of Web browser. There is no web browser on
low-end phones. Some of older phones have WAP browsers, and when
available, it is used, but there is a lack of WAP content. It is not
clear, particularly from handset manufacturers, that this situation will
change in a near future. Indeed, organization like GSMA are not
integrating in the specification of their Emerging Market Handset the
need of having a web browser.
- Problems of configuration : the difficulty to configure a phone to
enable web browsing, compared to the immediate accessibility of SMS is
seen as a blocking point.
- User Interface: usage of mobile Web browser are still problematic :
entering URI, ...
- Cost : given the price and the unpredictability of the cost of data
services, people are scared to use Web browser without knowing how much
they will be charged. Participants acknowledged that the availability of
affordable flat-rates plans for data-services would be a key factor for
That said, there is a general agreement that the Web is providing unique
opportunities which may facilitate the bridging of the digital divide:
- a standardized platform to ease service development
- cheap service development and hosting
- large scope and wide audience
- easy reachability and "discoverability" of existing services (search
engines, portals, ...)
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
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.
Participants identified the following potential next steps:
- First of all, this event demonstrated the need for a public forum to
share and capitalize experiences in running ICT projects in developing
countries. This may lead to the creation of best practices and guidelines
for providing mobile e-services in the developing world. This forum would
be a place where experts in the mobile technologies and experts in ICT in
developing countries could share expertise.
- Given that SMS applications are successful, it is very important to
analyze what are the key points of success in order to understand how to
ease the transition to the mobile Web as the platform for
- It will be essential to lobby at handset manufacturers and
international organizations defining the basic specifications of handsets
for developing countries for them to integrate the minimum browsing
capabilities. These minimal capabilities may be coming from the
above-mentioned analysis of the success of SMS applications. It will also
be very important to understand the nature of the low-end devices: what
are current minimal characteristics of devices we could rely on in terms
of memory, sim card, java availabilities, ... in order to recommend an
appropriate way to provide web capabilities on these devices.
- The location of the event allowed participants to get more specifically
feedback and information on the Indian market. It should be interesting
to understand commonalities and specificities between different regions
of the world in term of needs and usage (e.g., in Africa, South America,
...). It may be appropriate to run a series of such events around the
World to gather more inputs from other areas.
- Some potential blocking factors for the Mobile Web as a platform for
running mobile services has been identified. It may be appropriate to run
experiments to test some of those hypothesis at a small scale.