Are inexpensive smartphones the future of ICT4D?
August 12, 2011 Editor 0
I am Andrew J. Dupree, and nine months ago, I found myself in the same state as many other nights in my life as a computer engineering student – staring at my computer, trying to work. I was writing my first research proposal, to be submitted to the National Science Foundation as part of my application for a graduate school fellowship. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to write.
I have been interested in making computers more ubiquitous for some time. I thought I would cobble together something about low-power computer hardware and call it a day. But this rang hollow to me. Instead, I found my mind wandering back to the summer I had just spent working in Eric Brewer’s Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.
I had been tasked with helping to create medical devices that used low-cost sensors interfaced with a mobile phone for computation and diagnosis. Dr. Brewer firmly believed that mobile phones, with their phenomenal growth, were the key to expanding computer-based problem solving around the world.
At a glance, the numbers support his belief. Over half of the world’s mobile phone subscribers live in the developing world. The growth rate in Africa is some 60% per year, and Southeast Asia boasts around 25% per year. There is no doubt that the mobile phone is unprecedented as far as the spread of technology is concerned.
I did notice one troublesome problem. The cost of mobile phones powerful enough to serve as a basic computing platform – aka smartphones – is prohibitive. A new smartphone (not subsidized with a lengthy contract) is going to set you back around a couple hundred dollars. Indeed, the phone we were using at TIER for our prototype retailed for around $400.
But why is this? The processors that are the heart of most smartphones are very cheap – less than $30 if bought in bulk. The communication electronics are inexpensive as well. Android OS is open source. It stands to reason that if one were to develop a smartphone with cost in mind, a fairly inexpensive model could be created.
I decided to write my research proposal on this idea. “Development of a Smartphone Mobile Computing Platform for Technical Innovation in Emerging Regions,” I called it. The NSF seemed to like it, as I got the fellowship.
However, it seems that others have beaten me to it. Huawei’s $100 smartphone is already on the market, and “iPhone Lite” rumors are flying fast and furious. Maybe the smartphone is already becoming a commodity.
But should ICT4D practitioners be excited? Can the mobile phone do better what projects like OLPC have attempted? Could a low-cost smartphone piggyback on the rapid spread of the mobile phone in the developing world, bringing with it rich applications for e-learning, e-business, and more?
Even if you think the answers to these questions are yes, it might not matter. Smartphone penetration in Africa is very low and likely to stay that way, according to a study by Informa Telecom and Media. They cite “low penetration of mobile broadband networks, the lack of compelling local content and the proliferation of prepaid subscribers” as reasons why the percentage of smartphones in Africa – currently 3% – will still be less than 15% by 2015.
So are smartphones the “digital bridge” we have been waiting for? Or just another Western oversimplification? Without a multi-pronged effort to create cheaper phones, contextualized content, and business models tailored to the developing world, we may never find out. What I am wondering now, is it worth the effort?
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