Network Responsibility

In the past 6 months, I’ve seen more and more infrastructure companies focused on network data optimization (and why shouldn’t they be with video consumption continuing to explode and now representing 40% of all data load). On the other hand, from an operator perspective, the introduction of data caps in creates the downside protection they need (eg if someone is being data abusive, they are paying a significant premium for it) – not a bad situation for the operator.

That being said, what I haven’t found much focus on is the shift of data consumption responsibility to the developer. Developers need to build network-efficient applications and unfortunately, I still haven’t found a best practices / guidelines for developers to adhere to.

I’m definitely not a network expert but certainly developers should keep in mind the following:

1. Chatty vs queued (I’ve heard that the opening/closing of network connections causes unnecessary pain; developers can design around this?)
2. WiFi vs 3G (It’s not difficult to determine network speed and then determine whether to do the “large” or “small” download. This is similar to how in prepaid days, apps may wait until nighttime to download data because of the cheaper tariffs)
3. Roaming or not (This would require network APIs to be available but assuming it is, this would absolutely impact when the application should be transmitting data)
4. Load on the network (Again, this would require network APIs, but knowing load can be used to a developers advantage)
5. Compressed vs uncompressed (Many argue that the PC resulted in inefficient app development and mobile made you efficient again with limited storage/memory/CPU etc. Now that mobile is the new PC, that may be happening again. If you have a server-based application, why not compress?)

And the list goes on…

Operators need to put more pressure on developers in writing network-efficient apps rather than pushing data caps, IMO. Let me know if anyone finds a list of best practices?

Understanding the Emerging Market

I recently gave a talk on some emerging market trends and themes and I figured it’d be good to share them here. With all the focus on 3G data caps and smartphone penetration, we still forget that regions like Brazil (beyond emerging market) still only have 4% data penetration and some parts of Africa (eg Nigeria) have near-4G networks but much of the rural population is still lacking a phone.

The Microprenuer

Many of you have probably heard this story but the government in Uganda wanted to enable two things: 1. Provide mobile phones and thus voice and data access to rural villagers and 2. Create more female entrepreneurs since culturally females were home wives and not enabled to work. To do this, the government in conjunction with Grameen Phone and MTN did something very clever, they recruited females from various rural villages and gave them a mobile phone, known as the VillagePhone. The females instantly became the sole owner of a mobile phone (Village Phone Operators) meaning others at the village would pay her some small fee to use her mobile phone. In one move, villagers were able to call friends and family (or the doctor!) and get limited information in real-time (imagine what it would be like without internet access) and additionally, females were now a working class, a microprenuer. The story of the phone tethered to a single pole in the middle of the village with a line to use it is not a joke – it is real!

USSD (binary SMS) and Voice Services

A search box on your home screen seems like a no-brainer and it’s definitely one of those features you don’t realize how much you appreciate until it is on your home screen. I rely on this search box all day to get information on various things whether it be local services, events and so forth. Anyways, in rural markets, unfortunately data access is often not available and thus you have to rely on alternate forms of transport. Voice is often thought of as a 1:1 communication service but can also be used as a way to broadcast information. Companies like Lexy allow content producers to broadcast channels over voice in the US and projects like the Spoken Web Project take the same concept but apply it to basic information for the third world. For example, I would call a phone number and hear an automated operator tell me the major news around me, the sports scores, the weather and so forth.

Alternatively, how do you offer a information access through an application without being able to send data. It sounds like a trick question but the answer is to use SMS for transport. USSD is effectively a fancy term for binary SMS. When you press #MIN on your mobile phone in the US, you are sending a binary SMS message from your phone to the network; the network then responds with an SMS message that appears as a popup dialog on your phone with the number of minutes available for your plan. Well imagine if you could create a simple J2ME application with a rich UI that uses SMS for transport – great idea and this is what a number of startups are doing for various emerging market operators. See solutions like Shorthand Mobile, MobileXL, Spectrum Mobile and The UIs feel like portals with access to various text based content. Until data access become available, this is a great interim approach and a great way for these companies to establish their brands with these users.

Mobile Payment

Not sure about you, but I completely rely on plastic (credit/debit cards) and often carry little or no cash. I only take cash out of the ATMs (cash machines) for basically the few times when I can’t pay by card in my average day usually when I know I’m going to San Francisco (and need to pay for parking :). Paying by card generally makes sense since I get an automatic log of the transaction from which I can categorize, archive and reference as a receipt. In any case, the one assumption here is I do have a bank account and I do trust my bank. Well, what do you do when you don’t have access to a local bank or a bank that you can trust.

This problem is encountered by millions of folks in rural populations everyday – welcome M-Pesa that has initially been deployed in Kenya in partnership with Safaricom and Vodafone. Effectively, a rural villager can use their mobile phone account (SIM) as a way to pay other villagers by sending money from one mobile phone account to another. This has been incredibly successful because in many cases the villager trusts their mobile phone operator more than the national banking institutions and are willing to deposit real money into their mobile account via the mobile network operator agents (of which their are an abundance of in rural regions).

In some ways, this makes absolute sense and in advanced markets such as Japan, we are beginning to see banking institutions partner with network operators to allow subscribers to make non-digital purchases via their mobile phone. That being said, even in advanced markets, we still don’t have elegant P2P (person-to-person) payment solutions although many startups are attacking this problem (eg Paypal being the incumbent). I guess once your mobile phone becomes the plastic, do the operators eventually move down-stream and become the banks? Scary thought…

Family Browsing

Having worked on browsers for the past 2.5 years, I’m always amazed at how much browsing usage comes from emerging markets. South Africa is often a top 10 browsing country in terms of usage as reported by Admob which is insane considering their population. Anyways, given the cost of data in some rural villages, it’s too expensive for every family member to have internet access and/or maybe the family has to share one phone so how do you browse the internet as if you had a PC and a larger screen. Well, duh, you get the mobile phone with a built-in projector! Samsung Galaxy Beam is one example but there are several other lower cost devices entering the market. Imagine taking it a step further and connecting your projector-enabled mobile phone to a Bluetooth keyboard or maybe a Bluetooth Zeemote. Now, you effectively have a home PC but using your mobile phone, not a netbook but a mobilebook – very cool!

Above are some example of some of the amazing innovation that is happening in the emerging markets – looking forward to seeing what is developed next!