W3CMobile Web Initiative

The Mobile Web in Developing Countries: Next Steps
by Stéphane Boyera

NB: This page is no more maintained since May 2008. This exploratory work led to the creation of the Mobile Web for Social Development IG which is now the official home page for this work at W3C.

Nearby: MWI

Background | Goal | First Step: an International Workshop | Next Steps | Why W3C? | Links


This document is a white paper describing a list of potential directions W3C may follow in the future. All the ideas developed below are coming from discussions that took place at the W3C Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries. They are also reflecting the exchanges that happened between the author and different people after the workshop. As such, this is not yet a draft of a potential future W3C Activity, and there is not commitment yet by W3C to engage in this area of work. The aim of this document is to start querying the mobile community as well as the digital divide community to see if we can gather a critical mass of experts, individuals and/or organizations, and also to get funding around some of our ideas on how to help bridging the digital divide using the mobile phones and the mobile Web.


Since its creation by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, W3C’s mission has been to lead the Web to its full potential. Defining new free and open technologies for the Web, preventing fragmentation, working towards one single space of communication and exchange, accessible by everyone from every device, has been the spirit of all W3C actions from the last 12 years. During this history, each time there was a need for integrating specific communities with specific requirements, each time there was a potential for the Web to reach a new area, W3C organized and launched specific initiatives, integrating experts in given technologies, but also other key players involved in the domain (government agencies, other standardization bodies, etc.). In 1997, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was launched to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities. In 2005, W3C's Mobile Web Initiative (MWI ) was set to make the Web accessible from mobile phones.

Now, it is time to think about the next steps. While more and more people are using the Web, a significant number of people still do not have regular, effective access and ability to use digital technologies. This is known as the "Digital Divide". An important step in the direction of filling this gap has been the deployment of mobile networks all around the world. For example, as of today, more than 80% of the world's population is covered by GSM, and more than 2 billions of people have access to a mobile phone (source: World Bank). With one million additional people newly subscribed every day, it is expected that by the end of 2010, almost 4 billions will have access to a mobile phone.

However, even if accessing phone services is very important, the gap will be more completely filled when access to a higher level of information technologies will be widespread. Now, with the availability of high speed mobile data networks, and the appearance of increasingly-affordable Web-enabled phones, one can imagine that the potential to help bridge the digital divide has increased, in that people with access to a mobile phone would be able to access the Internet and the Web. But, it is fundamental to understand the needs and the expectations of the people, 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 gap becomes reality.

For this purpose, W3C, with the support of its Mobile Web Initiative, decided to investigate this area and to understand what should be its role in participating in the effort of bridging the digital divide.

First Step: an International Workshop

While there is a general agreement among specialists on the importance of bridging the digital divide, there are probably different solutions to achieve it. The One Laptop per Child Initiative thinks that an inexpensive laptop using mesh networks may be the way forward. Microsoft thinks that the solution is to provide a Windows-based mobile phone which can transform itself in a computer by plugging in a TV set and a keyboard. Our view is that perhaps, there is a third direction to explore, a solution which would have an easier deployment phase and would take advantage of the 2.7+ billion mobile phones spread over the world and which would provide direct Web access from them.

Starting from this observation, as a first step, we decided to investigate this third direction by organizing an International Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing countries which took place in Bangalore, India, 5-6 December 2007.

Broadly speaking, representatives from two communities participated in this Workshop: those inventing new technology and those with expertise in social and economic issues in developing countries. The event provided a great opportunity to bring those communities together, but it revealed that there is still a gap 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 rely on the cooperation of experts from both areas, 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 to use Web technologies as a mean to provide services (health, banking, government services, education, business, etc.) which would improve the life of the under-privileged populations. Using mobile phones as the support for services is 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 widespread way to provide such e-services on mobile phones is with SMS-based applications. The reasons for that are numerous:

Of course, the limitations of SMS-based applications are widely recognized:

Adopting the Web as the platform for developing future services requires work on the following blocking factors:

However, there was a general agreement at the Workshop that the Web is providing unique opportunities which may facilitate the bridging of the digital divide:

In order to take advantage 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, today we are still missing information about the exact needs and usage of ICT in developing countries. However, 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 goes a long way, but equally important is teaching people how to develop applications for this platform. Even though there are lots of mobile phones compared to the number of PCs, it is very rare to see "Mobile Application Development" courses taught in the universities of these countries. Enabling 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 the problem of internationalization of content: being able to enter data and view content in local languages.

For a detailed review of the Workshop output, read the Executive Summary.

During the Workshop, future directions were suggested:

Building from these suggestions, W3C plans to investigate in 2007 if there is a critical mass of interested parties, and potential funding to start new work and cooperation with involved international bodies around the following themes:

We do foresee a business interest in developing lightweight Web access on ultra low-cost handsets for all the following actors:

For all those reasons, we do hope to convince all the players to participate in such a concerted effort. The exact form and content of such cooperation, the precise list of action items and plans still need to be defined. Our first steps now will be to talk to all above mentioned players and International bodies to define an exact plan.

Why W3C?

There are numerous reasons why we think that W3C is the right place to host this work and to leverage Web access in developing countries:

For all these reasons, we do think that W3C is the most appropriate standardization body to lead this work.

Like any other W3C Activity, this new work would rely on funding coming from different sources:

Securing the appropriate funding for this work will be a major direction of investigation for the next months, before launching any new activities.