Sunday, April 11, 2010

US not plugged into cellphone revolution

Apr 11, 2010

By Anand Giridharadas

What if, globally speaking, the iPad is not the next big thing? What if the next big thing is small, cheap and not American?

Americans went gaga the previous weekend with the iPad's release. But even as hundreds of thousands in the US unwrap their iPads, another future entirely may be unfolding elsewhere on the cellphone.

Forgotten in the American tumult is a global flowering of innovation in the simple cellphone. From Brazil to India to South Korea and even Afghanistan, people are seeking work via text message, borrowing and lending money and receiving salaries on cellphones, and employing their phones variously as torches, televisions and radios.

And many do all this for peanuts.

In India, Reliance Communications sells handsets for less than US$25 (S$35), with one-cent-a-minute phone calls across India and one-cent text messages and no monthly charge - while earning fat profits. Compare that with iPad buyers in the US, who pay US$499 for the basic version, who might also have a US$1,000-plus computer and a US$100-plus smartphone, and who could pay US$100 or more each month to connect these many devices to the ether.

Not for the first time, the United States and much of the world are moving in different ways. American innovators, building for an ever-expanding bandwidth network, are heading towards fancier, costlier, more network-hungry and status-giving devices; meanwhile, their counterparts in developing nations are innovating to find ever more uses for cheap, basic cellphones.

The US does not share the romance of the phone that prevails elsewhere - even in wealthy Europe. Since returning last year from India, I have been struck by how often calls drop here and surprised that text-messaging, so vital to Indians, has yet to entrench itself in the US, where so much messaging travels on the Internet.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum and Insead, the French business school, concluded that the US ranks below 71 other nations in its level of cellphone penetration, even though it leads in other areas of connectivity. Some Americans are not connected at all.

But millions of others are beyond the phone, so to speak: They own one, they use it but they own other devices, too, and the phone is not the be-all and end-all.

But from Kenya to Colombia to South Africa, cellphones are becoming the truly universal technology. These countries are the kind of places that have built cellphone towers precisely to leapfrog past the expense of building wired networks that have linked Americans for a century.

The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International

Telecommunication Union, a trade group. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cellphone than the United Nations says have access to a clean toilet.

Because it reaches so many people, because it is always with you, because it is cheap and shareable and easily repaired, the cellphone has opened a new frontier in global innovation.

Two organisations - Babajob, in Bangalore and India, and Souktel, in the Palestinian territories in Israel - offer job-hunting services via text message. Souktel allows users without Internet access or fancy phones to register by sending a series of text messages with information about themselves. A user who texts in 'match me' will receive a listing of suitable jobs, including phone numbers to dial.

In Africa, the cellphone is giving birth to a new paradigm in money. Plastic cards have become the reigning instruments of payment in the West but projects like PesaPal and M-Pesa in Kenya are working to make the cellphone the hub of personal finance. M-Pesa lets you convert cash into cellphone money at your local grocer and this money can instantly be wired to anyone with a phone.

These efforts arise from a shortage of bank accounts in Africa. But they create the possibility of peer-to-peer finance in the developing world that could be useful even in wealthy countries - for example, allowing small businesses in rural areas to collect money without credit-card systems.

The cellphone has also moved to the centre of community life in many places. In Africa, urban churches record sermons with cellphones, then transmit them to villages to be replayed. In Iran and Moldova, those organising popular uprisings against authoritarian governments turned to the cellphone. In India, the cellphone is now used to allow citizen election monitoring and to equip voters, via text message, with information on candidates' incomes and criminal backgrounds.

Recognising the role of cellphones in developing nations, the White House made a point last year of releasing President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world, in Cairo, in 13 languages via text message. It has made no similarly publicised gesture in the US, even though not everyone has Internet access. (The administration proposes to remedy that by widening broadband access.)

All of which suggests the presence of an innovation gap between the world's richest societies and the poorest - not in device design so much as in usage. And there is a question about whether the US, which gained so much from the Internet revolution, would similarly profit from the entry of billions more people from the developing world into a massive worldwide middle class - consumers now but not yet rich, with a simple cellphone and a less-is-more sensibility.

Certainly, innovative new devices may find important roles in the US - for example, as platforms for distributing news and books and entertainment, which have struggled to adapt to the digital age. That alone could make their invention revolutionary.

But is desire replacing need as the mother of American invention? Will domestic demand for even sleeker, faster, fancier devices over the long run make it harder for Americans to innovate for the vast, less opulent world outside, still dominated by frugal wants? Perhaps.

British entrepreneur Ken Banks, who works in Africa and developed FrontlineSMS, a text-messaging service for aid groups, put it this way: 'There's often a tendency in the West to approach things the wrong way round, so we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things just because we can.'

Well, yes. Then again, the cellphone itself began that way. A quarter-century ago, when Michael Douglas famously carried one in Wall Street, it was an exorbitant gadget for high rollers.

Now it's more common than a toilet.

International Herald Tribune

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