Category Archives: Service Design

Posts related to the design of mobile market services.

Top 10 mobile agriculture applications

via IT News Africa- Africa’s Technology News Leader. Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor

The iCow platform has a series of dairy agri products that are available over a simple menu system (Image source: iCow)

In reporting from the ICT4Ag conference in Kigali, Rwanda, IT News Africa features the following apps as the best for agriculture in Africa. Consider the descriptions provided by IT News Africa, as well as short comments I offer. Please cast YOUR VOTE!

1. iCow

The iCow platform has a series of dairy agri products that are available over a simple menu system. Farmers dial a short code, *285#, and access a simple menu that guides them on how to subscribe to the various products. After subscribing, the system sends messages to users at intervals – depending on the product choice. iCow’s objective is to increase farmer productivity through access to knowledge and experts and to encourage the development of a younger generation of farmers.

>>I understand that iCow’s content products are advisories. From my work with extension agents in Ghana, I am largely skeptical of SMS messages being able to convey the complexity of agriculture advisories.

2. Rural eMarket

Developed for rural Africa, Rural eMarket is a simple yet powerful solution to communicate market information, using smartphones, tablets or computers. Rural eMarket is multi-lingual, easy, quick to adopt, and most of all, affordable for most rural projects. The use of appropriate ICT solutions can improve transparency and access to market information and transform the livelihoods of rural populations. However, there are many regions in Africa that do not benefit from these new technologies because of illiteracy, the weakness of connectivity or the inability to find an affordable and adapted solution.

>>The concept of using mobile for improving the transparency of agricultural value chains in Africa is not new. In fact it is what inspired me to start this blog years ago. Yet, I think it remains very ambitious goal to realize by offering content services for farmers at the retail level. The structural constraints to trade, other than information, remain the limiting factor!

3. mFisheries

mFisheries is a suite of open-source mobile and web applications for small scale fisheries. It was developed at the University of the West Indies with International Development Research Centre (IDRC) support and comprises a virtual marketplace application, which displays market prices using open data. There is also the ‘Got Fish Need Fish application’ which, in real time, connects agents in the fisheries value chain. It includes navigational tools such as a compass and a GPS logging and retrieval application, as well as training companions including abbreviated first aid lessons from courses delivered by the Caribbean Fisheries Training and Development Institute.

>>Achieving an efficient market in the fisheries remains a case with promise, since early efforts by Manobi in Senegal and Jensen’s pioneering work on “The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector”. Fish is highly perishable with volatile market value and fishermen are largely flexible in terms of where they market their catch. This application does sound promising to me.

4. Esoko

Esoko is Africa’s most popular mAgric platform for tracking and sharing market intelligence. “We have a range of apps that you can choose from to suit your needs,” they state. It links farmers to markets with automatic market prices and offers from buyers, disseminate personalised extension messages based on crop & location, and manages extension officers and lead farmers with SMS messaging. Esoko is a totally customisable comprehensive platform designed to transform how you manage your information needs – all bundled into one easy-to-use interface, and backed up with a unique deployment team to help you anywhere.

>> I have spent a lot of time with Esoko in Ghana. I think they are moving in the right direction towards developing a sustainable B2B2C business model. Synthesizing IT development knowledge, agronomic and business knowledge they work with wholesale clients  while maintaining some retail content offerings.

5. FarmerConnect

The FarmerConnect Platform is a cloud-based and mobile-enabled platform that delivers personalised agricultural extension services and text/audio information intelligence in local languages to smallholders and farmers who otherwise do not have access to- or can comprehend information from traditional sources. Such service helps them stay connected with the information and aiding agencies on a daily basis, increase their yields/incomes, and reduce hunger, poverty and under-nutrition. FarmerConnect, in a nutshell, hosts a one-stop market place for agricultural communities, including service seekers (Farmers), service enablers (Government, NGO and Private agencies) and service providers (Agronomists, Markets Trackers, Weather Stations etc.).

>>It appears to me that leveraging the mobile cloud for the delivery of media rich advisory services is a promising approach to raising agricultural productivity. Yet, only focusing on disembodied knowledge can be problematic. Advice, without human contact and without knowledge inputs e.g. fertilizers, technologies, etc. rarely delivers impact.

6. M-Shamba

M-Shamba is an interactive platform that provides information to farmers through the use of a mobile phone. M-shamba utilises the various features of a mobile phone, including cross-platform applications accessible in both smart and low-end phones, and SMS to provide information on production, harvesting, marketing, credit, weather and climate. It provides customised information to farmers based on their location and crop/animal preference. Farmers can also share information on various topics with each other. M-shamba is currently being used by 4000 rice farmers in Kenya to help them adopt new technologies in rice farming.

>> I appreciate that this app offers social networking and knowledge exchange functionalities. I think it is a mandatory aspect of  a working solution for rural Africa. Applications which do not harness the strength of rural information networks are missing the point.

7. Mobile Agribiz

Mobile Agribiz ( is a web and SMS mobile application that helps farmers decide when and how to plant crops, select the best crops for a given location using climate and weather data, and connect to the available market. It helps connect farmers to buyers, and helps them to source important, relevant information (e.g. how to plant crops, how to use fertilizers) and necessary data aggregates (e.g. weather, crop pricing) from various sources. Farmers can easily connect with customers by sending an SMS with their phone number, information on goods, prices and quantities fort sale. This information is plotted into a map on servers, enabling customers to see farmers’ information, the goods they are selling, their quantities and location, and make a connection.

8. AgroSim

AgroSim is a valuable tool for decision-making in agricultural projects. It works primarily on data collected online and provides a virtual representation of the different stages of crop growth and development as would be the case in reality. It is an event simulator able to anticipate the quality and quantity of the productivity of a desired crop by taking into account data related to seed, soil, hydraulic climate, geography, macro-economy and the demographic of the targeted area. Created to be used on all platforms (locally, online, on Smartphone and Android) and built with artificial intelligence to cater for the increasingly demanding needs of this industry, Agrosim is an adaptable and portable application which is universally used by both novices and professionals in the agricultural sector.

>>I am sorry to say so, but I think that a traditional decision-support system is largely inadequate for responding to the needs and capacities of African smallholders.

9. amAgriculture

Developed by, amAgriculture is an analytical tool that helps agri-businesses understand underlying business trends, manage transactions, cut costs, increase revenues and mitigate risk. Core product features include agricultural input data collection and management; agricultural output data collection and management; transactional data tracking from agent transactions with farmers in cooperatives/network; web-based and mobile analytics; web-based push/pull SMS system for agents and farmer communication; and data export capabilities in Microsoft Excel.

10. Farming Instructor

Farming Instructor is a mobile app that provides online and offline agricultural information (text, speeches and animations) to farmers and their communities. The application is created specifically to inspire youth and all other groups in the society to have the passion to engage in agriculture as the means to self-employment. With this app, the user or farmer can source all the necessary information related to agriculture, as well as share and comment on other farming tips and advice.

A Noble Use for Mobile Phones

with Meika Jensen

As ‘the Internet of things’ becomes more pervasive and as wireless connectivity becomes more widely available, the possibilities for what can be done with is are constantly growing. Someday it may be the case that someone in rural Africa could remotely earn an accredited online masters degree, or could start a Fortune 500 company. For the time being, information technology use in Africa is a little more immediate and pragmatic. Although the industry is still in its nascent stages, we have witnessed more than a few creative technology applications, aimed at ambitious impact goals in terms of African development and welfare.

It is not a surprise to anyone that mobile phones are extremely popular among the fluid and changeable populations of urban and peri-urban Africa. But what about poorer rural communities? As a matter if fact, rural and traditional communities in Africa are strongholds of deep-seated oral cultures which have adopted the use of the mobile phone as much as it has become part of our own Western culture. The value of basic mobile functionalities (voice and SMS) to rural communities has been well documented. Increasingly, the mobile channel is becoming a channel for direct access to the Internet and the information service opportunities it can offer. As mobile network expansion opportunities are coming to their natural limits, intensifying rural-based use of value added services is becoming a priority. Multimedia channels combining mobile functionalities (voice and data) with traditional broadcasting methods (radio, TV) hold considerable promise.

The earthquake in Haiti, the civil unrest in North Africa, the natural disasters and tsunamis that hit the Pacific over the past few years are considered “game changers” in terms of our understanding of mass communication with poorly-resourced and poorly-organized groups of people, reachable exclusively via mobile signal. Not only were cell phones and their use of text messaging essential for coordinating relief efforts and letting victims stay on top of rescue updates, they allowed those with limited access to reach out directly to relief agencies or to get support indirectly, through their social networks, thereby finding hope and organization rather than chaos and tragedy.

mPedigree has put itself on the cutting edge by using cell phone technology and text-back messages based on short codes and SKU #s so Africans can verify weather malaria drugs are legitimate or counterfeit. And before cell phone use became widespread across the African continent, groups like the World Health Organization wouldn’t have been able to organize a mass database of cell phone users and cell phone numbers to organize vaccination stations and reminders, schedule health check-ups, and push reminders to massive numbers of people.

In 2001, a mere 3% of Africans had access to cell phone. By 2004 that number had grown to 7% and represented 50-million cell phone users. Four years later, in 2008, that number ballooned to nearly 350-million and it continues to grow at the quickest rate in the world. And these numbers are just scratching the surface as new cell phone contracts are projecting at 550% growth over the next five years.

The role of mobile phones in daily life ranges from busting counterfeit drug suppliers, getting emergency weather alerts, to breaking local, national, and international news. But experts predict mobile will play a key role in the development of Africa’s rural and isolated communities. Nigel Scott and his colleagues wrote a report in 2004 called “The Impact of Mobile Phones in Africa” and argued that mobile phones are becoming increasingly important to African countries in areas such as infrastructure service, as a household investment that improves the quality of life via social capital and personal finance management, as a source of jobs and reinvestment from mobile operators with a vested interest in improving the quality of life for their customers, and finally as a tool for building a nation. Their research showed how mobile phones could increase the efficiency of news and service delivery to the poor (weather, education trends, market prices, news and health updates). The very definition of “third world” is being redefined as the gap between the haves and have-nots is shrinking.

Unlike almost any time in its history, Africa is becoming connected to itself and to the world at large. As mobile phones and mobile Internet continue to shape rural Africa’s next decade and century, it won’t have to struggle in order to have its voice heard.

Zain is ZAP-ping Ghana?

At a press conference today, Zain announced the launch of its award-winning, enhanced payment service ZAP in Ghana. The service is set to compete for the custom of the Ghanaian “unbanked” with MTN’s Mobile Money.

The development of mobile payment mechanisms in the Ghanaian market for value-added mobile services, alongside with the evolution of the local market information platform Esoko, makes mobile commerce in Ghana an increasingly realistic prospect.

Zain Introduces Enhanced Payment Product

Phillip Sowah - Zain Ghana boss

The mobile phone has become one of the most important pieces of equipment that has revolutionaised processes in the society, making people transact business and communicate in a friendly and more convenient way.

Not only have authorities predicted the continuous revolution in the sector, but they believe Africa, which was written off as one that could not realise the full benefit of the technology, will now be at the centre of the mobile phone revolution, using the device to facilitate trade and the settlement of values beyond its traditional use as a communication tool to which the device is put in many parts of the world.

Leading the mobile revolution in Africa and the Middle East is Zain Telecommunications which continues to use veritable market survey to design products and services on its platform to the benefit of the ordinary person and businesses.

The telecom service provider has introduced onto the Ghanaian market its award-winning mobile commerce (m-commerce) product, the Zap service, which is set to make business transactions on all platforms easier by enabling users to access funds from their bank accounts and pay utility bills using their mobile phones.

ZAP has been extensively reviewed and approved by industry experts across the world as an efficient way of doing transactions. The product is the reigning winner of the coveted award for Best Mobile Money for the Unbanked Service at the GSMA Global Mobile World Awards 2010.

The Country Manager of Zain, Mr Philip Sowah, explained that the service went beyond money transfer into enabling users of the service to effect payment of any kind be it a bill at a grocery, utility bills, pay-TV bills, school fees, or even to honour pledges and tithes at church.

“This service will enable people to transact business and make payments without resorting to cash,” Mr Sowah explained, adding that although the service would initially be available to Zain customers, it would later rope in other platforms.

Currently, Zain is working in partnership with three banks, namely Ecobank, Standard Chartered Bank and UBA to deploy the service with the hope that after the launch other banks would be roped in.

With its authentic ability to capture people in the informal sector, who would load cash on the service for transactions, the product would help in banking a lot more people in that sector, thus help in mopping up excess money in circulation, a condition necessary for checking inflation. Currently, only 80 per cent of the Ghanaian working population is unbanked. This means a teaming number of people in the informal economy remain unbanked.

“The unbanked will become banked under Zap and enable banks to have access to more customers,” Mr Sowah added, adding that the general economic and business benefits of ZAP were astounding and would further revolutionarise commerce in Ghana.

How it operates

Customers of the network will first have to register with the mobile provider before being able to access their Zap service. The customers can send money from their bank account to ZAP account or go to the nearest Zain dealer or Zap centre to deposit cash onto their Zap service to enable them to send money from ZAP to a bank account, send virtual money to friends and family, receive virtual money or withdraw cash.

Mr Sowah said “money can be redeemed from any ZAP outlet or Zain accredited shops all over the country.”

On another level, merchants and service providers who would be signed on would also have their Zap account which would facilitate a unique settlements system that would facilitate the exchange of goods and services to take place.

For instance, at the Accra Mall, all the big and small vendors would have the service which would allow customers to buy from say game supermarket and pay through the Zap service.

It can also work in informal economies such as at traditional markets in Ghana such as the Makola market in Accra, the Asafo market in Kumasi or the Techiman market in the Brong Ahafo Region.

For money transfer, the upper limit is GH¢600 a day, while transactions with merchants could go beyond that to bigger amounts, in an attempt to check fraudulent deals with the system, such as money laundering.


Besides the multi-faceted services it offers, Zap also promises convenient and a cost efficient way of transferring money; or for the payment of goods and services in the Ghanaian market.

Zain officials said there would be no need for any special subscriber identity module (SIM) card or customers to begin to enjoy the ZAP service. In addition, however, customers who would use ZAP would be allowed to keep their phone numbers confidential with the use of ‘nicknames’ to transfer money.

The service could also be used to top up airtime for the customer or for someone else.

Security features

The company stressed that since Zap operated in a ‘virtual’ world of transacting business without carrying cash, theft cases and armed robbery would be drastically reduced, citing building contractors as an example of a category that could “Zap” workers’ wages directly to their handsets without carrying sack loads of money.

The workers could later redeem the cash at the ZAP outlets doted all across the country, Mr Sowah explained.

The ZAP service is currently in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Niger and Sierra Leone.

via Zain Introduces Enhanced Payment Product| Business News | | Ghana News,Politics,Sports,Business,Entertainment.

Mobile-phone culture: The Apparatgeist calls

Dec 30th 2009

From The Economist print edition

How you use your mobile phone has long reflected where you live. But the spirit of the machines may be wiping away cultural differences

Illustration by James Fryer

TECHNOLOGIES tend to be global, both by nature and by name. Say “television”, “computer” or “internet” anywhere and chances are you will be understood. But hand-held phones? For this ubiquitous technology, mankind suffers from a Tower of Babel syndrome. Under millions of Christmas trees North and South Americans have been unwrapping cell phones or celulares. Yet to Britons and Spaniards they are mobiles or móviles. Germans and Finns refer to them as Handys and kännykät, respectively, because they fit in your hand. The Chinese, too, make calls on a sho ji, or “hand machine”. And in Japan the term of art is keitai, which roughly means “something you can carry with you”.

This disjunction is revealing for an object that, in the space of a
decade, has become as essential to human functioning as a pair of
shoes. Mobile phones do not share a single global moniker because the origins of their names are deeply cultural. “Cellular” refers to how modern wireless networks are built, pointing to a technological
worldview in America. “Mobile” emphasises that the device is
untethered, which fits the roaming, once-imperial British style. HANDY highlights the importance of functionality, much appreciated in Germany. But are such differences more than cosmetic? And will they persist or give way to a global mobile culture?

Such questions bear asking. It is easy to forget how rapidly mobile
phones have taken over. A decade ago, there were fewer than 500m mobile subscriptions, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Now there are about 4.6 billion (see chart). Penetration rates have risen steeply everywhere. In rich countries subscriptions outnumber the population. Even in poor countries more than half the inhabitants have gone mobile. Dial a number and the odds are three to one that it will cause a mobile phone, rather than a fixed-line one, to ring somewhere on the planet.

As airtime gets cheaper, the untethered masses tend to use their
mobiles more. In early 2000 an average user spoke for 174 minutes a month, according to the GSM Association (GSMA), an industry group. By early 2009 that had risen to 261 minutes, which suggests that humanity spends over 1 trillion minutes a month on mobiles, or nearly 2m years. Nobody can keep track of the flood of text messages. One estimate suggests that American subscribers alone sent over 1 trillion texts in 2008, almost treble the number sent the previous year.

Now a further mobile-phone revolution is under way, driven by the
iPhone and other “smart” handsets which let users gain access to the
internet and download mobile applications, including games,
social-networking programs, productivity tools and much else besides. Smart-phones accounted for over 13% of the 309m handsets shipped in the third quarter of 2009. Some analysts estimate that by 2015 almost all shipped handsets will be smart. Mobile operators have started building networks which will allow for faster connection speeds for an even wider variety of applications and services.

Yet these global trends hide starkly different national and regional
stories. Vittorio Colao, the boss of Vodafone, which operates or
partially owns networks in 31 countries, argues that the farther south you go, the more people use their phones, even past the equator: where life is less organised people need a tool, for example to rejig appointments. “Culture influences the lifestyle, and the lifestyle influences the way we communicate,” he says. “If you don’t leave your phone on in a meeting in Italy, you are likely to miss the next one.”

Other mundane factors also affect how phones are used. For instance, in countries where many people have holiday homes they are more likely to give out a mobile number, which then becomes the default where they can be reached, thus undermining the use of fixed-line phones. Technologies are always “both constructive and constructed by historical, social, and cultural contexts,” writes Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist at the University of California in Irvine, who has co-edited a book on Japan’s mobile-phone subculture.

Indeed, Japan is good example of how such subcultures come about. In the 1990s Americans and Scandinavians were early adopters of mobile phones. But in the next decade Japan was widely seen as the model for the mobile future, given its early embrace of the mobile internet. For some time WIRED, a magazine for technology lovers, ran a column called “Japanese schoolgirl watch”, serving readers with a stream of KEITAI oddities. The implication was that what Japanese schoolgirls did one day, everyone else would do the next.

The country’s mobile boom was arguably encouraged by underlying social conditions. Most teenagers had long used pagers to keep in touch. In 1999 NTT, Japan’s dominant operator, launched i-mode, a platform for mobile-internet services. It allowed cheap e-mails between networks and the Japanese promptly signed up in droves for mobile internet. Ms Ito also points out that Japan is a crowded place with lots of rules. Harried teenagers, in particular, have few chances for private conversations and talking on the phone in public is frowned upon, if not outlawed. Hence the appeal of mobile data services.

The best way to grasp Japan’s mobile culture is to take a crowded
commuter train. There are plenty of signs advising you not to use your phone. Every few minutes announcements are made to the same effect. If you do take a call, you risk more than disapproving gazes. Passengers may appeal to a guard who will quietly but firmly explain: “DAME DESU”–it’s not allowed. Some studies suggest that talking on a mobile phone on a train is seen as worse than in a theatre. Instead, hushed passengers type away on their handsets or read mobile-phone novels (written Japanese allows more information to be displayed on a small screen than languages that use the Roman alphabet).

Might the Japanese stop talking entirely on their mobiles? They seem less and less keen on the phone’s original purpose. In 2002 the average Japanese mobile user spoke on it for 181 minutes each month, about the global norm. By early 2009 that had fallen to 133 minutes, then only half the world average. Nobody knows how many e-mails are sent, but the Japanese are probably even more prolific than text-crazy Indonesians, who average more than 1,000 messages per month on some operators. No wonder that Tokyo’s teenagers have been called the “thumb generation”.

Others are quiet, too. On average Germans–who are fond of saying that “talk is silver, silence is golden”–spend only 89 minutes each month calling others for HANDY-based conversation. This may be a result of national telephone companies on both sides of the Berlin Wall having exhorted subscribers for years to “keep it short” because of underinvestment in the East and rapid economic growth that overtaxed the network in the West. Germans are also thrifty, suggests Anastassia Lauterbach of Deutsche Telekom. For longer calls, she says, consumers resort to much cheaper landlines.

In contrast, Americans won’t shut up. Their average monthly talk-time is a whopping 788 minutes, though some of this is a statistical illusion because subscribers also pay for incoming calls. Yet talk is cheap: there is no roaming charge within the United States. Americans are often in their cars, an ideal spot for phone calls, especially in the many states where driving and talking without headsets is still legal.

The chattiest of all are Puerto Ricans, who have by far the highest
monthly average in the world of 1,875 minutes, probably because
operators on the American island offer all-you-can-talk plans for only $40, which include calls to the mainland. This allows Puerto Ricans to chat endlessly with their friends in New York, but may also have arbitrageurs routing cheap international phone calls through the island.

Just how people behave when talking on a mobile phone is a question of culture, at least at first, according to Amapro Lasen, a sociologist at Universidad Complutense in Madrid. In the early 2000s she studied phone users in the Spanish capital, in Paris and in London. Mobiles were a common sight, but Parisians and Madrileniens felt freer to talk in the street, even in the middle of the pavement. Londoners, by contrast, tended to gather in certain zones, for instance at the entrances of tube stations–the sort of place Ms Lasen calls an “improvised open-air wireless phone booth”.

In Paris people openly complained when bothered by others talking
loudly about intimate matters, but complaints were rare in London. In both places, people tended to separate phone and face-to-face
conversations, for instance by retreating to a quiet corner. But
subscribers in Madrid often mixed them and even allowed others to take part in their phone conversations. The Spanish almost always take a call and most turn off voicemail.

For Ms Lasen, who has lived in all three cities, such variations
reflect how people traditionally use urban space. In London, she says, the streets are mainly for walking, “like the bed where the river
flows”. Paris, however, is a place to stroll, the home of the FLaNEUR.
In Madrid people inhabit the streets to talk together. As for their
aversion to voicemail, the Spanish consider it rude to leave a call
unanswered, even if it is inconvenient. This may be the result of a
strong sense of social obligation towards friends and family.

Elsewhere, too, culture and history may help determine whether people talk in public or take a call. The Chinese often let themselves be interrupted, fearing that otherwise they could miss a business
opportunity. Uzbeks use their mobiles only rarely in public, because the police might be listening. And Germans can get quite aggressive if people disobey the rules, even unwritten ones. In 1999 a German man died in a fight triggered by his ill-mannered HANDY use.

Economics and other hard factors also shape habits. Olaf Swantee, the head of Orange’s mobile business, notes that pricey handsets are less popular in Belgium than in Britain because Belgian operators have long been barred from subsidising phones, a strategy widely used on the other side of the Channel. Italy, however, exhibits both low subsidies and many high-end handsets. Subscribers there do not want to spend much on airtime, but are keen to buy a flashy phone.

China is distinct because of economics and relatively lax regulation.
Many consumers use SHANZHAI (“bandit”) phones, produced by hundreds of small handset-makers based on chips and software from Mediatek, a Taiwanese firm. Knock-offs are common, with labels such as “Nckia” and “Sumsung”. Other innovative manufacturers have developed specialised phones, for instance handsets that can respond to two phone numbers, or models with giant speakers for farmers on noisy tractors.

Elsewhere the physical environment determines which kinds of handsets prevail, says Younghee Jung, a design expert at Nokia, the world’s largest maker of handsets. In hot India, for instance, men rarely wear jackets, but their shirts have pockets to hold phones–which therefore cannot be large. Indian women keep phones in colourful pouches, less as a fashion statement than as a way to protect the devices and preserve their resale value. It also makes for a noteworthy contrast with Japan, says Ms Jung. If women there keep phones in a pouch and decorate them with stickers and straps, that has nothing to do with economics, but reflects the urge to personalise the handset. Phones are highly subsidised in Japan and the resale value is essentially nil, so it is not unusual to see lost units lying in the gutter.

In some countries it is a common habit to carry around more than one phone. Japanese workers often have two: a private one and a work one (which they often turn off so bosses cannot get them at any hour). “I have one phone for work, one for family, one for pleasure and one for the car,” says a Middle Eastern salesman quoted in a study for Motorola, a handset-maker. Having several phones is often meant to signal importance. Latin American managers, for instance, like to show how well connected they are: some even have a dedicated one for the boss.

As this example suggests, softer factors may influence the choice and design of hardware, even for networks. If coverage in America tends to be patchy, it is not least because consumers seem willing to endure a lot and changing operators is a hassle. Elsewhere the reverse is true. Italians demand good reception on the ski slopes, the Greeks on their many islands and Finns in road tunnels, however remote. If coverage is poor, subscribers will switch.

Paradoxically, however, it is in Italy and Greece that people are
especially worried about the supposed health risks of electromagnetic fields. A 2007 survey commissioned by the European Commission found that 86% of Greeks and 69% of Italians were “very” or “fairly” concerned about them, compared with 51% in Britain, 35% in Germany and only 27% in Sweden. It may be that people fret when they lack reliable information–or that in some countries local politicians stir up fears.

Whatever the reasons, the public reaction explains why phone masts in Italy are often disguised, for instance as the arches of a hamburger restaurant, as a palm tree or even as the cross on a famous cathedral. In Moldova, by contrast, such masts are monuments to prosperity. “Every time we put up a mast, they had a party. It connected them,” says Orange’s Mr Swantee.

Yet digital technologies change quickly, and so do attitudes towards
them. Will such differences between cultures persist and grow larger, or will they diminish over time? Companies would like to know, because it costs more to provide different handsets and services in different parts of the world than it would do to offer the same things everywhere.

A few years ago such questions provoked academic controversy. Not everybody agrees with Ms Ito’s argument that technology is always socially constructed. James Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Jersey, argues that there is an APPARATGEIST (German for “spirit of the machine”). For personal communication technologies, he argues, people react in pretty much the same way, a few national variations notwithstanding. “Regardless of culture,” he suggests, “when people interact with personal communication technologies, they tend to standardise infrastructure and gravitate towards consistent tastes and universal features.”

Recent developments seem to support him. When Ms Lasen went back to London, Paris and Madrid a few years later, phone behaviour had, by and large, become the same in the different cities (although Spaniards still rejected voicemail). Yet it is not just the APPARATGEIST that explains this, argues Ms Lasen. In all three cities, she says, people lead increasingly complex lives and need their mobiles to manage them. Ms Ito agrees. American teenagers now also text madly, in part because their lives are becoming almost as regulated as those of the Japanese.

This convergence is likely to continue, not least because it is in the
interest of the industry’s heavyweights. Handsets increasingly come
with all kinds of sensors. Nokia’s Ms Jung, for instance, is working on
a project to develop an “Esperanto of gestures” to control such
environmentally aware devices. Her team is trying to find an
internationally acceptable gesture to quieten a ringing phone. This is tricky: giving the device the evil eye or shushing it, for instance,
will not work. Treating objects as living things might work in East
Asia, where almost everything has a soul, but not in the Middle East,
where religious tenets make this unacceptable.

In the long run most national differences will disappear, predicts
Scott Campbell of the University of Michigan, author of several papers on mobile-phone usage. But he expects some persistence of variations that go back to economics. In poorer countries subscribers will handle their mobile phones differently simply because they lack money. Nearly all airtime in Africa is pre-paid. Practices such as “beeping” are likely to continue for quite a while: when callers lack credit, they hang up after just one ring, a signal that they want to be called back.

A few differences may remain within borders, suggests Kathryn
Archibald, who works at Nokia and tries to understand consumers in different parts of the world. Only a few countries, mainly in Africa
and Asia, still need special cultural attention when designing a phone (which is why some models in India double as torches). “We see more differences within countries than between them,” she says.

Nokia breaks down phone users into various categories, rather than by geography. “Simplicity seekers” barely know how to turn on their phones and use them only in case of trouble. At the other end of the spectrum, “technology leaders” always want the latest devices and feel crippled without their phones. “Life jugglers” need their handsets to co-ordinate the many parts of their lives. Ms Archibald says Nokia’s aim is to offer the right handset to each such group.

But when it comes to content–the services offered via the phones and the applications installed on them–Nokia pays considerable attention to local culture. In India and other developing countries the firm has launched a set of services called “Life Tools”, which ranges from agricultural information for farmers to educational services such as language tuition. In many rich countries, by contrast, handsets come bundled with a subscription to download music. “We need to operate globally, but be relevant locally,” concludes Ms Archibald.

All this raises a question: as differences fade, are people becoming
slaves to the APPARATGEIST? “Because of our evolutionary heritage, we want to be in perpetual contact with others,” argues Mr Katz. Just as technology allows people to overeat, it now lets them overcommunicate. If this is a problem now, imagine what would happen if telepathy become possible. The thought is not entirely far-fetched: researchers at Intel, a chipmaker, are devising ways to use brain waves to control computers. A phone that can be implanted in your head may be just a few years away–at which point the Germans will no longer be able to call it a HANDY.

via Mobile-phone culture: The Apparatgeist calls | The Economist.

Are Mid-Range Phones the “Smartphones 4D”?

I have finally come around to revisiting some of the topics that came up during the days of the CTA ICT Observatory, held in Wageningen, the Neatherlands from 2nd to 4th of Nobember, 2009. One topic in particular that reared its head during the first day, concerned the potential of mid-range mobile phone devices to deliver the benefits associated with mobile services.

The topic came up when all participants were asked by the workshop facilitators Pete Cranston and Christian Kreutz to consider the advantages and disadvantages of different technological channels for access to information. Volunteers were asked to collect views regarding the following channels:

  • Indirect access i.e. information access mediated by another human being.
  • Radio
  • Direct information sharing i.e. CDs, printouts, file sharing.
  • Rural access
  • Basic phones: devices with two-tone displays and basic functionality.  Almost exclusively the functionality is limited to voice and SMS.
  • Mid-range phones i.e. phones with functionality exceeding the basics.  These devices have multi-tone display and a data channel (GPRS) with a high level of usability. Features such as extendable keyboards, cameras
  • Smart phones i.e. phones complete with an operating system and advanced PC-like functionalities such as email and Internet access.

I collected the views of the participants in the workshop on mid-range phones. And after about half an hour we came up with the poster below.

Pros and Cons of Mid-range Phones

The pros of mid-range phones include that they allow for the development of more interactive mobile applications and services. The use of phones and services with basic functionality have proven their worth and usefulness, as in the many deployment examples associated with FrontlineSMS. Still, many of the areas where SMS services are used can benefit from more extensive interactions. That’s why we put interactivity as one of the advantages carried by mid-range phones. The implementations I envisage would fall somewhere on the orange fraction of “social mobile’s long tail”, as explained by Ken Banks in a recent post on his blog. Arguably, mid-range phones are currently the devices of choice for end-users in the implementation of mid-complexity systems and customised solutions. Yet again, arguably, they have the potential of being the devices of choice for the implementation of simple, low cost systems in the future.

Another advantage of mid-range phones is that through the data channel they allow information to be exchanged way more cheaply than SMS. Steve Song оf has posted much on the lack of fairness in the pricing of mobile communication and recently started the initiative Fair Mobile).  Mid-range phones allow a cheaper alternative because in terms of the price of data transfer per character, data services based on GPRS are up to 1000 times cheaper. This argument was put forward as part of the presentation of Stephane Boyera from the W3C at CTA’s ICT Observatory. Moreover, the feasibility of extending the use of devices with mid-range functionality in the provision of mobile services is supported by the increased market availability of such devices at prices near the $50 mark.

In a recent analysis of the potential of hybrid devices, Simon Kearney notes that “while smartphones may dominate the mobile growth story in many developed markets, the picture is very different in the much larger developing and emerging world markets.”  In these markets products and services such as Nokia’s Life Tools are, in many ways, exploring leapfrogging possibilities by allowing mobile access to the Internet.

The Nokia Life Tools services, deployed in India and Indonesia are examples of mobile services which can be deployed through mid-range phones. These services are targeted at very low earners in developing countries. They allow users access to weather and agricultural market information. A series of phones designed as end-user devices for Nokia Life Tools, and retailing at prices between 20 and 54 Euros – before taxes and subsidies – are shortly due to begin shipping.

Designing Services for Financial Inclusion

Presentation by Jan Chipchase at the Mobile Money Conference, Dubai, October 26th 2009. Who benefits more from the introduction of mobile phone banking services – a white-collar worker in New York City or a migrant manual labourer living out of a dormitory in Xi’an? Design research for Nokia Money.

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