Access to telecommunication and information is one of the most significant disruptors of the poverty cycle, and while there is a large focus on the development of high-end mobile phones and applications, there is still a huge demand for SMS, USSD and basic WAP sites, particularly in emerging markets.
"We are seeing so many innovations coming out of countries like India and Brazil, but they only begin to explore the many different services which can be applied to help change people's lives for the better," says Angus Robinson, Brandsh Media founder and CEO, who recently returned from the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain. MWC is a world-class thought leadership conference which attracts more than 1 300 companies and more than 47 000 mobile professionals from around the world.
"This is not to say that iPhone Apps and similar developments don't have their place in emerging markets. Emerging markets have more need for practical applications as opposed to games and entertainment," he says. "Smart phone based applications can be sponsored or subsidised by non-governmental organisations or companies as significant corporate social investment programmes. For example, an app can be used to help farmers trade fresh fruit and vegetables to interested audiences."
The world's love affair with apps was clearly evident at this year's MWC. 2009 saw the start of the app trend with the Apple iPhone App Store, Nokia Ovi and Blackberry getting in on the app game. This year saw the launch of the Congress' first ever AppPlanet, which attracted 20 000 visitors.
However, as much as apps and the associated innovations were highlighted at MWC, Robinson says there was also a sense that focus will eventually move back to the browser when HTML5 is released. YouTube's Head of Mobile Operator Relationships, Francisco Varela, spoke at the conference, saying the shift back to browser services will be necessary because it's too time consuming and costly to develop for fragmented operating systems. HTML5 will have native support for audio and video, simplifying development and distribution across multiple handsets.
"But this in no way discounts the iPhone effect. Handsets are now more aptly called portable computing devices," explains Robinson. "The iPhone's impact on the entire mobile industry can be seen in the effect it's having on other operating systems such as BADA from Samsung and Windows Phone 7 Series from Microsoft. It can be seen in innovations and development on the operating system level, from the user experience perspective, as well as in embedded chip functionality such as WiFi and GPS, accelerometer, compass, intelligent touch screen and improved camera and video quality."
Innovations that show a glimpse of the future include advanced mapping and location services, augmented reality, niche mobile social networks and the much hyped promise of crowdsourcing. There is a strong sense that a boom in mobile video content will occur in the next five years and it will be the highest of the improved mobile bandwidth.
'Real' connectivity and high-speed Internet access was demonstrated by the large infrastructure providers such as Ericsson and Motorola. Ericsson set a world record by showcasing LTE/4G with a speed of 1 gigabit per second in the downlink. This kind of speed is required before the aforementioned mobile video consumption can become a reality.
Where does South Africa fit in all this? According to Robinson, we have an opportunity to learn from the innovation on display, however we must acknowledge that our market is very different. "South Korea and Japan were the first real mobile innovators, but now most innovation has shifted to Europe and the US. These regions have been quick to respond to the opportunities presented by platforms like the iPhone and Android. Regardless of how far behind SA is in this market segment, we have great opportunities to play to our strengths".
"South Africans should think carefully about how we position our products and services. We should be targeting emerging markets such as Africa, South East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Brazil and other countries in South America. Those countries don't have the resources that Europe and the US have, and are more similar to South Africa in need, economic situation and mobile adoption, which is why innovation from SA has a greater role to play there," concludes Robinson.