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The perfect device for the developing world is not the PC

Think mobile, think phone...
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Written by Clive Longbottom on

Think mobile, think phone...

We have the right hardware for developing countries - it's just not a PC, says Quocirca's Clive Longbottom.

As a person inhabiting what is commonly called a developed country, I'm used to computers being a central part of my life. However, for less well-developed countries, the idea that the computer will be the universal device just doesn't sit well with the realities of daily life.

At this stage, many countries just don't have the advanced infrastructure required for a full computing experience: they lack connectivity, hardware and software distribution networks and stable power.

Also, many dwellings in developing countries are not capable of keeping out harsh environmental conditions such as the damp of a monsoon or the ever-present fine dust of deserts.

Yet many people still try to fit the computer into these markets, looking to maximise computer ownership as the main access device for an ever-increasing proportion of the six billion-plus global population.

Granted, the number of people who own a PC is going to increase, and it will tend to increase faster in developing countries than in the saturated, developed markets. But the computer doesn't have to be the main device for the majority. There is a far more common device - the mobile phone - that is increasingly being used in developing environments in ways that span from the simple yet effective, to the complex and amazing.

Here are some great examples of how developing nations are already taking advantage of the mobile phone.

  • The nomadic herdsmen of the Masai Mara have been suffering from livestock being eaten by lions - and thus have been killing more and more of them, to the point where the existence of the iconic animal is threatened. The charity Living With Lions (LWL) has set up a programme called Lion Guardians in which the Masai place tracking collars on the local lions. Then, using handheld devices, a small group of Masai can keep tabs on where the lions are and ensure that the herdsmen and livestock are kept away from these areas. As a result, the Masai now live peacefully alongside the lions, and are seen as helping to maintain the lion population, which then brings in money through tourism as well.
  • In many developing countries, the reality of a bank exists for few people. Indeed, the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) estimates that 80 per cent of people in the least developed nations do not use any banking services at all. The use of micro-banking tied to mobile phones has been shown to be up to 30 per cent cheaper than other methods - and enables many poor people to join in with financial transactions where they may well have been excluded in the past. The Wizzit bank in South Africa, for instance, has such a capability, with account holders able to transfer money between themselves using mobile phones.
  • Microfinance organisation Kiva noticed that Peruvian Kiva borrowers were making money by allowing their mobile phones to be used by people in the street who did not have their own device. This aggregated usage enabled the borrowers to get special call deals, and also gave Kiva an idea. If this aggregation worked as a business proposition, it could also be made to work for group microfinance initiatives. Thus a community can now use a single mobile phone to arrange aggregated microfinance deals and repay them. At the same time, the phone works as a communication tool to maximise the community's capabilities to build their business propositions.
  • The United Nations Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation are working together to enable mobile phones to be used for healthcare improvements in India, South Africa and Uganda via the launch of the Mobile Health Alliance (mHealth Alliance). Two examples: Project Masiluleke in South Africa is an SMS-based HIV/AIDS education and hotline service. And Cell-PREVEN in Peru uses mobile phones to connect decentralised groups of healthcare professionals, who can now call each other and share knowledge as they visit communities.

The benefits of the mobile phone in developing countries are manifold. It's wireless so less physical infrastructure is required for connectivity. The phone itself is lower cost than a PC. It is self contained and has a generally higher level of environmental resistance than a PC. It uses less power than a PC, and is not dependent on being tethered to a mains power outlet. Batteries can be charged in vehicles or other 12V DC outlets, via small solar chargers, or at a central location.

Basic phones are capable of receiving and sending text messages; while more advanced models can browse the web. Whereas the recycling of PCs has struggled due to high costs and security concerns, the recycling of mobile phones is simple and cost effective.

As a means of increasing reach and enabling remote communities to explore new means of empowering individuals and groups, the mobile phone looks like a far better bet than the PC at this stage.

The PC will still have a place - probably as a centralised resource held within a community elder's property, or in a community meeting place, or as an educational platform in schools. But the phone can be the individual's device of choice, and fits in with the needs for portability, for low cost and basic ruggedness.

A leading user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture, Quocirca is made up of a team of experts in technology and its business implications. The team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth, Louella Fernandes, Fran Howarth and Simon Perry. Their series of columns for silicon.com seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking. For a full summary of the consultancy's activities, see www.quocirca.com.

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