What’s the Mobile Equivalent of the Internet Cafe? Sharing a Mobile Device in Emerging Economies Reply


Have you ever thought about what would happen if you lost your mobile?

Frustration.  Anger at yourself.  Maybe worry about your photographs, schedule, or affording a replacement. 

I have always thought of my mobile phone, from the mid 1990s through now, as being an ever-present extension of myself.  I select a phone that meets my needs.  I organize my content grazing habits according to what apps (e.g., Tweetdeck, Fouraquare, Google Reader, etc) are available on both my PC and mobile.  The mobile is literally like another limb.

Two article in the May/June issue of Technology Review have opened my eyes to a different view of the mobile device.  Much like when I was first fascinated with the behaviors of netizens visiting China's Internet cafes, I am today equally fascinated by this alternate pattern of of mobile use in emerging economies.  First, the mobile is not an extension of the individual, but a shared device.  And second, when sharing a device in an emerging economy–a behavior that seems to be driven by simple economic considerations (i.e., affordability)–the feature-laden smart phones so popular in Singapore and Indonesia seem to have little value.

The affordability of old technologies such as SMS seem to make better sense in these markets.

Africa Leads the Way with Innovative Uses of Old Tech

Smarter Phones, written by Robert Fabricant who is the Vice President of Creative at Frog Design, argues that, "smart phones may actually be a move in the wrong direction."  Following an ethnographic study of mobile users in Africa, according to Fabricant's article, mobile services in these markets must be simple, efficient, and affordable because (in part) old style phones which handle only voice and text message constrain what people can do via mobile.  One old-fashioned mobile phone may be shared by an entire group such as a family.  "They need their mobile interests to be freed from the hardware.

Designing services which more freely allow a separation of the user from the hardware offer the opportunity to unlock value.

Nokia Leads the Way in Designing Services for These Emerging Markets

Later in the same issue of Technology Review, I encountered an article about Nokia which better illustrates Prof. Fabricant's Point.  Titled Nokia Sets Sights on Developing World, we read how Nokia's market share is shrinking in the fast growing smart phone markets while sill growing in the poor regions of Middle East and Africa.  The region's differences in infrastructure and descretionary spending power therefore force service providers to work within the boundaries of what the technology enables. 

Nokia's X1-00 phone may look old school to high tech users in Singapore, but seems ideal for emerging markets with an amazing 61 day battery life when the phone is in stand-by mode.  This is great if you are never quite sure when the government's power plant will actually be able to deliver the power to an outlet near you. 

Additionally, research conducted by Prof. Jenna Burrell in Uganda revealed that a complex interaction between market structures, livelihood activities, and cultural practices drive how the phone fits into society.  Taking more of a design perspective, Nokis now offers an advanced SMS services called Ovi Life Tools in markets like India, China, Nigeria and Indonesia.  Ovi Life Tools, "allows users to subscribe to SMS updates" while another Nokia tool, called Mobile Communities, lets people share messages within groups using SMS for Twitter like updates.


Communication evolves Out of the Situation

I find it interesting that other articles in this same issue of Technology review discuss how you, as an individual can use the mobile device as a wallet, translate a message youa re looking at in real time, or have relevant advertising pushed to me based on my location.  The phone, in these discussion, is literally an extension of me.

I have never before thought of the mobile as a community tool.  Yet, I can now see how the situation demands a different response than merely more advanced and cooler personal technology.  With any luck, I would love to catch Robert Fabricant on Skype for an interview to better understand exactly how users in these emerging markets are adopting  old style mobile forms as a communal resource and exactly where/how value can be unlocked by embracing this separation of one mobile, one person.

Thinking ahead one more step, what does this pattern of communication behavior suggest for Corp Comm and PR in emerging economies?

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