The Next Billion

by Imran Ali

SharedphoneWhen considering social software, we tend to conceive of software that is a filtered aggregation of individuated and personalised experiences.

Nokia's Jan Chipchase and Indri Tulusan reframe this perception by asking what happens when people share an object that is inherently designed for personal use?

There's a lotta talk about the 'next billion' mobile customers, largely from the developing world, but very little real empirical study of what those users might need. Contrast Doom-playing OLPCs with the work of The Fonly Institute...

Chipchase and Tulusan's field study of Ugandan mobile, this past July, documents some very revealing observations...

  • Phone borrowing is is driven by cost and price sensitivity.

  • Phone lending is driven by hospitality, personal relationships and community well-being.

  • The notion of 'sente', using prepay airtime as a form of cheap, secure and convenient banking.

  • Employing missed calls - 'beeping and flashing' - as a form of free messaging.

  • Phones as community ATMs.

  • Pooling prepay credit between customers when sufficiently small prepay denominations are available.

  • Mediated Calls - where literacy becomes a barrier to participation.

  • Community address books to encourage repeat business and conveniently recall commonly dialled numbers.

  • Step messaging - physically carrying a phone containing a message to its recipient...

Chipchase and Tulusan conclude that sharing is driven by cost, but that low costs lowers the propensity to share; with initial experiences governed by sharing, they also conclude that this may shape future usage. It'll be interesting to see how individual ownership might affect social cohesion and mobile usage in the very same communities.

What's striking about the research is that all the observed innovations in shared usage are a result of user inventiveness, rather than handset design or network services; a case of user-generated services that really serve the needs of the consumer...if the mobile industry paid closer attention to such innovation, it might provide that 'next billion' users with the tools they actually need.


BTW, during a vacation in Pakistan this year, I noticed that a lot of people carried 2-3 handsets and SIMs as tools to mediate their friendships, family and professional availabilty...

(I started writing this post at my personal blog, then realised it would actually make for an interesting ETel article, so apologies for those who have picked it up twice!)


Jon Bryant
2007-06-01 11:26:27
Great blog. Check out qode.