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Dispatches from members of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative Team

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Is the difference between OLPC and the Mobile Web only about device ? — 24 July 2007

When talking about providing ICT in Developing Countries, everybody heard about the OLPC initiative, also known as the 100$ laptop. Some people may also be aware of the work the W3C MWI Team is starting in that area, focusing on providing Web access on mobile phones.

Obviously, technically, both approaches are quite different. The former is focusing on laptops, wireless and mesh networks, while the later is based on mobile phones and GSM networks. But are these different solutions competing ?

I don't think so. I'm convinced that laptops have their place on the big picture. It is clear that accessing information, communicating and so on is easier with a full keyboard, and a big screen. It is also easy to provide free wireless/mesh networks. Removing one of the barrier, the price of the device, is an essential step. But there are also few other steps to make: deploying those laptops, deploying networks, training professors before they could train children, having people adopting this device,... On these different barriers, countries are not at the same level of development and the resolution of these blocking factors may be quicker in some countries than others.

However, in my view, this is not comparable to the current situation in mobile telephony, where networks are already here, and devices already in the pocket of hundreds million of people. So I'm convinced that the potential today for a short-term impact on people lives is with the mobile platform and Web technologies, but the laptop solution may be an alternative option in a further future.

That said, OLPC and our approaches should not be compared only at the device level. The point is not on technology, but on improving people lives. So the essential points are on how to reach people, how to take their needs into account, how to enable them to use and adapt the technology to their needs and requirements...

On these factors, this is where i think the major differences are between the two approaches. While OLPC has a top-down approach through governments buying laptops and giving them to their children for free, we have a bottom-up approach: relying on existing infrastructure and involving local actors of the society: NGOs with ground expertise, local entrepreneurs, digital divide experts, researchers from local universities...Building such a community is, for us, the only way of capitalizing existing expertise in different domains, as well as really understanding needs, requirements and blocking factors we have to work on. For now, this is the major activity we are focusing on, through the organization of events like the one in India we did last year, and the opening of W3C offices in Developing Countries (Morocco, India, Southern Africa existing, Brazil, Chile, Thailand and more to come) to have W3C presence locally. We are not going to create any new device, or any new technology, but we believe that Web technologies with mobile phones is the only affordable and scalable way of deploying eServices (business, Government, Health...) in rural areas.

Starting from this point, it is essential to understand what types of adaptation of the technology and the environment (here handsets, browsers, networks...) is needed to transform the potential into reality.

Having a very cheap laptop is good, but it would really help people if it allows them to develop business, to earn money and so on. The point is not really the cost of the device but the difference between the cost and the income (see the great talk of Iqbal Quadir on "The power of mobile phone to end poverty").

At this point, while incredibly successful stories are showing up everyday on the usage of mobile phones (read eg fishermen in India story or how mobile phones leverage access to banking services for the poorest people), i don't see similar evidences of the potential impact of laptops. Some specialists tend to think that OLPC hasn't taken these aspects into account and requires high levels of investment before having checked the usability and the potential of this solution to really improve people lives (see for example a very interesting interview from Ken Banks ).

Stéphane
by Stephane Boyera in Developing Countries 4 comments Permalink

A Wiki for The Mobile Web in Developing Countries — 20 July 2007

Last march, I launched a Wiki on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries but it was missing a bit of organization and structure to make it really usable.

The idea behind this wiki is to have a repository to gather all types of information about deploying ICT at low-cost in rural areas (bridging the digital divide) and more specifically with the help of mobile phones:

  • Successful Stories and use cases to build a shared view on the most useful (type of) services to improve people lives
  • Technical information and solutions on a wide range of domains: how to deploy infrastructure in rural areas, what are the characteristics of emerging market handset line of products, ...
  • Past or ongoing projects in that area
  • Information and Statistics on mobile services (penetration, coverage, costs, ...), web usage (costs, type of content and application used,...),...
  • Education: what are ongoing initiative to develop curriculum and courses to help people in Developing Countries to master mobile application technologies
  • Events (workshop, conference,...)
  • Information about major actors (NGOs, International organization, local players ...) in that areas

Since I've been working on this topic, i already gathered lots of material which is worth sharing with the community. So, in the next few day, i will go on filling the wiki with my own set of information.

That said, this wiki would be really useful only if we have multiple contributors. So this post is a call for contributors ! If we all want to really build a shared global view of how to cope with the Digital Divide, and to take advantage of the huge opportunity of existing mobile phones, it is time to share our knowledge !

Stephane
by Stephane Boyera in Developing Countries Permalink

Is there a need for the Mobile Web for Developing Countries ? — 20 June 2007

I recently have discussions with few people, participants in some MWI events or Working Group meetings, and i almost always got the same questions: are there any specific needs for developing countries which are not already covered by MWI? Doesn't the "one Web" concept mean the same Web for all, those with phones, those with desktops, those with disabilities, those from developed and developing worlds, etc.? That's a good question, and i thought that it may be worth the time to try to explain why i think it is important to launch specific actions on this topic aside the ongoing MWI work.

When we launched the Mobile Web Initiative, the problem was about leveraging access to the Web from mobile phones (aka mobile browsing). To cope with this problem, it is important to understand why people would browse from their phones, what kind of content they would be interested in, what does mobility means, how to write content that would provide a good user experience, how to identify mobile friendly sites, etc. All these questions are very important and under investigation for now within MWI and its different working groups. Here, there is absolutely no big difference with big cities in the developing world. People have access to very cheap internet cafe everywhere, and the factors at stake to leverage Web access from mobile phones are most probably very very similar.

But, when we started working on the so called subject "the Mobile Web in Developing Countries", we entered a completely different world. The idea is that ICT in general, can improve people lives in rural areas by offering minimal services: access to minimal banking services (to store, retrieve, send and receive money), minimal access to health care (being able to contact a doctor etc.), minimal access to education, minimal access to business services (selling or buying good at the right price, looking for jobs, offering services, etc.), minimal access to government services (eg disaster management and prevention, etc.). The overall idea behind the need of ICT is to find a cheap and scalable way to offer those services which are not physically existing or available to rural communities and under-privileged people.

While there is a general agreement on the goal and impact of ICT, multiple solutions are currently explored, the major ones being:

  • Very cheap laptop and mesh networking (OLPC aka 100$ laptop)
  • Tele-centers with satellite connectivity
  • Mobile phones

For now, as far as i know, the most successful stories are those based on mobile phones using either voice (read the fishermen in Kerala example) or SMS (see banking example). Unfortunately, if successful stories demonstrated the potential of the approach with mobile phones, there is still a long journey to make before seeing a real wide deployment of applications.

Here comes our action. Are the above mentionned technologies (voice or sms services) appropriate for large-scale development and deployment of services?

I don't think so.

The problem is that SMS technology has lots of flaws which does not make it scalable:

  • Discoverability: it is impossible to know what are available services. You need to be aware of the number to call and the keywords to use in the message
  • Interaction: SMS is just 160 char. plain text. that offers very limited interaction between the service and the user.
  • Interoperability: almost all SMS services are limited to one operator. As of today for example all banking system based on sms are operator based. As now there are usually 2, 3 or 4 operators per country, this is a big problem.
  • Development: no standard for SMS apps development. There are free and open source platforms (e.g., look at frontlineSMS), but they are all specific, and you can't migrate easily applications from one to the other.
  • Deployment: it is very costly to run an sms service: either you make a deal with the operator and it may host it for you or you have a pc+gsm modem+subscription to the operator and this is again very expensive and prevent individual to start and run a service.

So, it is time, after the proof of concept, to think about the next generation of mobile applications, that would cope with those limitations. Our idea is that Web technology is a solution to all these problems from discoverability (with search engines or portals) to deployment (tons of free host on the internet), interaction (eg. html forms), interoperability,etc.

This doesn't answer the question about what need to be done specifically to ease this transition! The first step is, obviously to work towards the availability of browsing capabilities on emerging market handset (read the previous article i wrote on this topic) but here, except lobbying, there is not that much we can do. But lobbying would works, if and only if we can convince handset manufacturers and operators that this is just the last missing step to make the revolution.

If we suppose so that the technology will be there soon (browsing capabilities on mobile phones), what would leverage the development and deployment of the minimal services i was talking about earlier? Two things in my mind:

  • Guidelines for service development: It is essential to understand how to make useful applications, things that people would really use. So we have to answer here a few questions: how to make mobile browser as simple to use as SMS? what does that mean to provide application to non-technology/computer aware users? How to understand the specific cultural and social factors to take into account? Is there solutions/technics/option to ease interactions with illetarate people? etc. All these questions are really specific to the Developing world and this is not covered now in MWI.
  • Availability of expertise: even if one knows how to develop and deploy services, who would do the work? Are developing countries going again to rely on expertise coming from the north? I don't think this would be scalable, neither beneficial to developing countries. So the only solution, is then to enable the futur actors of the countries to do this work. This can only be achieved by organizing appropriate mobile applications curriculum in Developing Countries universities. There are already initiatives in that direction (look at EPROM) but these initiatives need to be extended to cover above mentioned factors, and free and open source multi-lingual materials should be made available.

To conclude, i clearly believe that there is a need for specific work at W3C to help bridging the Digital Divide and improve the lives of the poorest. The mobile platform is the most promising option for now, and in conjunction with Web technology, it has the potential to make a big step ahead. Moreover, the existence of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative is an incredible chance to have all involved actors already commited to work together. So isn't it time to jump on this opportunity?

by Stephane Boyera in Developing Countries 3 comments Permalink

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