Boardroom Despatches: Two groups to sanity check tech

Look to teenagers and developing markets...

Look to teenagers and developing markets...

To find out which technologies will be truly great - and not just great sounding - René Carayol says we need to heed the opinions of two frequently overlooked demographics.

In this country and most of the developed world we tend to be pretty good at producing great technology. Think of developments in the last decade alone. Some are truly mind blowing.

But many of these technologies, after a fine period of development in labs, don't cut it in the workplace. Or worse still, they simply flop.

In short, these technologies are all too often pushed at a potential market. They are not - with a few interesting exceptions - pulled by end users.

In this column I'd like to talk about two constituencies to look to in terms of sanity checking the great technologies. One, teenagers, have been spoken about at length but the other, developing markets around the world, isn't on the radar screen of many of those supplying what's new in tech. I argue it should be.

To take the former group, let me turn again to the experiences of someone I know very well: my daughter. Teenagers are fantastic early adopters of cheap, easy-to-use technology that adds some value to their lives.

Take the example of my daughter's mobile phone - or I should say mobile phones, plural. She has a £100 monthly cap. It at first sounded strange to me but she gets the most out of this by actually having three handsets, two pay-as-you-go and one post-pay.

Why? Well, a lot of her friends use T-Mobile and by having a pre-pay handset from that operator she knows her friends can call her for free at weekends and evenings. She rarely uses it to make calls.

Same goes for SMS. She has a handset from O2 which supplies her with some incredible number of texts each month.

As you can tell, she is very price sensitive. She is also technology literate - which you wouldn't be able to tell from this example alone - and got into things such as podcasting ages ago as a natural extension of her digital life. She is not, you may be surprised to hear, at all brand conscious in the mobile space.

Bottom line: we can learn from consumers like her. Plenty of people know that.

However, few know about or care to look to developing economies. I have been lucky enough that my work has taken me to Africa a lot in recent years. There are three big technologies changing that continent. They are:

•  Satellite TV - typically involving the best house in an area getting a feed and sharing it with others, replete with wall-to-wall US content

•  The internet - mainly used for the sending of emails, seen as a very low-cost, convenient way of staying in touch, particularly helpful when you have no postal address or PO box

•  Mobile phones - which have done nothing less than liberate communications in Africa. Even shepherds have them

But on a recent trip across Botswana, South Africa and Zambia, something else hit me and that was the extent to which voice over IP (VoIP) is booming.

For us in the developed west, VoIP is a hassle. We want to wait for it to become mainstream. But go to those three countries and there are now shops selling VoIP calls. It blew me away how much more technologically literate many of the users are than end users here - and, like the youth market, they don't care about brands.

In a bar in Francistown, Botswana, I even encountered locals debating the pros and cons of VoIP, comparing the situation in Egypt, South Africa and their country. These are real people thinking about what technology will do.

And the situation is similar elsewhere. A report by iLocus tells us that now more than half of all international long-distance calls from India are made over the internet, with the number set to carry on increasing.

People in developing markets and younger generations can often teach the executives thousands of miles - or years - away a thing or two. The kids know value. The developing nations know value.

I often say the best communicators are the best listeners. When was the last time you listened to a teenager? They are more use than some fat-cat focus group.

And am I right to draw too many conclusions from Africa? Consider this: five of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. They are using technology to leap frog from a horticultural, rural economy to a digital, modern economy.

To the huge 'Bric' nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China - add Africa, where there is little legacy technology.

But these economies are also changing the rules for many sellers of technology. What we are now seeing more than ever are people willing to make a fraction of a penny per use of the technology - but relying on getting millions of users.

That is the case with someone in Botswana using VoIP or sending email. It's a viable model because when these technologies are adopted, they are adopted by the million.

There are opportunities here for both those wanting to go in early and make some money and those looking for a huge test bed for their wares. There is no longer a reason to develop much technology in a lab, in isolation.

I see the benefit to this approach for both those supplying the technology and those using it, who will in turn improve on the technology for their purposes in unexpected ways.

So the message here is let's not only get involved with the teenagers but also the developing world. I was recently covering the whole Live8 push on the radio and it became clear to me that for all the good that governments and individuals can do, it's actually companies, building trade links with countries such as those in Africa, that can do most to alleviate poverty.

This is a winning proposition in so many ways.