|By J.D. Moore and Daniel Orwa Ochieng, November 2008|
This article expands on the opportunity, value, challenges, and practicalities of developing mobile services for "the next billion users" in one of the most exciting emerging markets: Africa.
|-||Introduction, From Outside and Inside|
|-||The African Potential|
|-||The FM Radio MIDlet|
According to Portio Research, "Africa offers great future potential as 'the last billion' when markets everywhere else are reaching saturation." There are huge opportunities, from the outside, for socio-economic impact, for leadership in this field, for profit, and for fun.
From the inside, the flip side are the challenges in a place where the majority of people in rural areas survive on less than US$1 per day. Mobile phone applications should serve basic needs, to be successful. In addition, mobile services must contend with lack of electricity supply, harsh environmental conditions (e.g., dust), low literacy levels, and cultural beliefs regarding technology use.
Sources show a huge upside to subscriber growth in Africa, with a US$429 billion market willing to spend on mobile services (2007). The following table shows comparative figures from the United Nations. Additionally, in South Africa, for example, over 76 percent of the population relies on mobile telephones, versus 9.2 percent on fixed landlines.
The Java technology installed base is projected to surpass North American numbers by 2010.
As of May 2008, 95 percent of mobile cellular subscribers in Africa used pre-paid services. Figure 2 shows snapshots of a few of many current manufacturers and network operators or service providers.
At the time of this writing, some of the Nokia devices for sale in Africa were the classic 2600 Series 40 and the 1200 Series 30 (which has the Amharic UI and keypad, multiple phonebooks, a built-in flashlight, and up for 390 hours of standby time -- but no Java technology). The 2600 is Java-enabled and includes the following Java technologies: CLDC 1.1, File Connection and PIM API (JSR 75), Bluetooth API (JSR 82), Mobile Media API (JSR 135), Security and Trust Services API (JSD 177), JTWI (JSR 185), Wireless Messaging API (JSR 205), MIDP 2.1, and Nokia UI API.
For example, when one of our phones needed servicing while we were in Kenya in 2007, we were struck by the nature of the repair shop, shown in the following picture. All potential low- and high-tech tools are considered, and the repair person is pushed to ingenious and resourceful solutions.
Such challenging conditions make ease-of-use considerations even more important. Our work has shown us several strategies that bring success. In the theoretical realm, the most important lesson is to avoid top-down development. Instead, get in touch with the people who will actually be using the application and mobile device, perhaps via Contextual Inquiry. Field testing and Usability studies are highly recommended. After all, the "technology literacy" levels may be much lower than expected.
Mobile user-interface heuristics have shown these factors as critical in ease-of-use:
As an example of these theories in action, Gergely Herenyi of Nokia developed this FM Radio Reference MIDlet, posted on the Nokia Forum. The MIDlet supports user-generated localization for an application to connect people to community radio stations. You can download the full source code from that site as well.
Several factors become critical when developing mobile applications for Africa.
Power can be scarce at present in Africa. According to United Nations figures, "Almost one-third of the estimated 1.6 billion people living without access to electricity worldwide live in Africa." Therefore it is important to conserve power when possible.
Harmonization is the idea that mobile services should be offered over SMS, GPRS (Internet) and voice channels where applicable. This is important as many users may not have access to one or more at any given time.
As harmonization of data transfer options is important., the developer simply implemented a fall-back mechanism for data traffic: first it tries to use the cheaper GPRS connection for data transfer; if that is not available, it falls back to use SMS as transport mechanism.
Cost , or Cost saving, is vitally important--especially in regions where average income levels are low.
Localization is a key feature when developing MIDlets for linguistically-diverse regions and was a main focus during the development of the MIDlet.
That is, the radio stations can provide additional language packs for the MIDlet, which can be generated by the local community. Also the MIDlet can provide additional explanations in local language before the core platform ask for permissions to access the web or to send an SMS, which pop-ups cannot be localized by the MIDlet.
Distribution is vital to getting a MIDlet deployed, but the other aspects of the tropically tolerant framework--such as network and cost--can make it difficult.
Relevance is critical to the success of a MIDlet in Africa because a large percentage of users are on limited incomes and thus will be very judicious when choosing technologies to use or pay for.
Network connectivity can be unreliable at times--generally more so than in fully developed regions.
Note: Due to the Nokia S40 JME Platform, not all Platform-controlled commands are available for this type of localization. This seems to be a shortcoming in the Nokia S40 JME Platform in terms of customizability by JME developers.
Java technology can be used for so many of the emerging needs on the African mobile landscape: mobile banking, education, chat, mapping medical transfers, route logging, conservation, email, stock trades, blogging, search, news, and web access. Here are several examples of successful market services.
This year saw one of the most successful value-added services in Africa being the M-Pesa, a mobile money-transfer service in Kenya. It has more than 6,000 registrations per day, with transfers of over 6 million Kenyan shillings per day. Part of its success is due to its simple user interface.
MXit, a global instant-messaging program, sends and receives via the internet, rather than SMS. Users can send up to 1,000 characters at a fraction of the cost of SMS.
Secure SMS is also popular: It is an encrypted-message routing via SMS-C, where the user decrypts incoming messages with a key.
Mobile Blog, favored by mobile business users or journalists, is used to send stories to popular radio stations and blogs.
Finally, downloadable Mobile Map Services are frequently employed. Since many African roads are not signed (or labeled), these maps use landmarks within a city to show directions. It is popular among teenagers.
With its unique challenges, Africa remains a huge opportunity for Java developers. The big players are already involved, and this world is both Java and non-Java. Take the time to understand the exciting opportunity, value, challenges, and practicalities of developing mobile services for the emerging market that is Africa. You may well tap into "the next billion users" and be a part of helping to build that community.
J.D. Moore is User Experience manager, Emerging Market Services, at Nokia. Daniel Orwa Ochieng is a lecturer at the School of Computing and Informatics at the University of Nairobi's College of Biological and Physical Sciences, in Kenya. He is studying for his doctorate in Philosophy.