Expert Views | Madanmohan Rao

 
A world gone mobile
 
The proliferation of mobile devices can also spark new forms of “cultural reclamation” as more and more people become equipped and motivated to chronicle and influence events. Mobile phones are useful tools for social change agents and activists during the phases of research, engagement and participation.
 
From dramatically changing business and political climates across the world to grammatically changing spelling and sentence structures via SMS, mobile phones are transforming countries and cultures in unprecedented ways. Mobile communication arguably constitutes the most successful and certainly the most rapidly adopted new technology in the world, according to James Katz, editor of the Mobile Communications Handbook. The study of mobile communications is turning out to be one of the most inter-disciplinary fields ever.
 
The world’s first SMS sent from a computer was in 1992 and the first SMS sent from a mobile phone was in 1993. Today, 200,000 SMS messages are sent every second. Mobile data traffic surpassed voice in 2009 and become double the voice traffic for the first time in 2011. “While the media tends to focus on smartphone apps, SMS messaging has become the everyphone app,” observes mobile marketer Jed Alpert.
 
On a lighter note, mobile communication has spawned a whole new lexicon, with words and terms which did not even exist some years ago: textiety, textlish, cathextism, textmate, sexting, flirtextatious, textual healing, obsesSMSsed, ‘checking- in’ (via Foursquare), and even the Golden Age of App-ortunity!
The proliferation of mobile devices can also spark new forms of ‘cultural reclamation’ as more and more people become equipped and motivated to chronicle and influence events. Mobile phones are useful tools for social change agents and activists during the phases of research, engagement and participation. The tactical use of mobile phones can save lives during natural disasters, enable activists to monitor illegal logging, facilitate fundraising for NGOs and help citizens report corruption and sign petitions. In this regard, mobile phones have been described as ‘people’s media’.
 
The Tactical Technology Collective has documented a range of such examples of mobile activism: Ushahidi (documenting violence in Kenya), TXTpower (consumer rights group in the Philippines), International Centre for Accelerated Development (election monitoring in Nigera), Women of Uganda Network (activism against gender violence) and Amnesty International Netherlands signature campaign against torture).
 
In emerging economies, ‘development’ initiatives are now moving beyond top-down approaches and involve local partners and the business community. The private sector has spread technology to middle income groups and they now see the developing world and underserved populations as viable markets that require targeted products and innovative services (eg. Nokia Life Tools, Reuters Market Light).
 
Mobiles have reached the stage where they can offer ‘population-level services’ in emerging economies, according to Gustav Praekelt of Praekelt Consulting in South Africa. Innovators are emerging in the BRICS countries, ranging from VAS providers to mobile ad networks, and are expanding to other emerging economies and right back into the mature economies.
 
In the mobile world, consumers have never had it so good in terms of access options, pricing competition and communications convenience, though challenges also arise with respect to intrusion of privacy by aggressive telemarketers, feeling of loss of personal space, excessive dependence on digital media by children and lack of etiquette with regard to the annoyance of phones ringing in theatres and restaurants! Mobiles are regarded by some industries as potential saviours as well as disruptors. While PCs and workstations have come under some criticism for ‘tethering’ knowledge workers to their desks, wireless technologies may be the perfect answer to ‘mobilising’ the workforce by letting them capture and harness key information and knowledge attributes wherever they are.
 
The rapid proliferation of multiple wireless technologies, along with the realities of scarce spectrum, can lead to numerous challenges for regulators, ranging from license allocation to the setting of tariffs. Uninformed regulators and corrupt government agencies can be detrimental to public interest issues in the mobile ecosystem. Universal access goals are also becoming moving targets, evolving from basic landline connectivity and wireless access to Internet and then broadband.
 
ICT4D practitioners note there is a long shelflife for the simplest mobile solutions, such as SMS, provided developers work in partnership with local communities to truly understand their needs and help them devise appropriate solutions. The rise of locally-inspired mobile innovation is a major trend in emerging economies today.
 
Development and finance experts present a compelling social and business case for leveraging mobile communication to shape financial access and opportunities for people who may not have traditional banking entitlement. Long-term challenges lie in increasing local language content and creating better partnerships between operators and service developers.
 
In most of rural South Asia, prepaid subscription is the most common access option and sharing of mobile phones is not unusual. Mobiles are used to share social and business information, micro-coordination of activities, market expansion and planning of livestock operations.
Mobiles have extended the scope and immediacy of government services beyond e-government and can also improve democratic engagement if the service design is bi-directional. Emerging trends include enhancement of m-government through social media, sensor networks and augmented reality, as well as m-government services between different national governments.
 
One of the more unusual models of mobile innovation comes from the global MobileMonday network, a community of developers and startups in 140+ cities around the world. The local organisers bring together mobile developers and other mobile industry stakeholders for discussions and knowledge exchange based on core values such as volunteerism and trusted peer relationships. MobileMonday has chapters today in India, Pakistan and SriLanka, with more chapters launching in the coming years.
 
Looking to the future, a number of researchers have used techniques like scenario planning to interpret future mobile worlds. A megatrend of the century is increasing urbanisation: this is where mobile and M2M networks can play an important role in environmental monitoring, public sector efficiency and smart buildings.
 
Unfortunately, there are also new kinds of crimes in the world of mobiles, ranging from theft of device or information to harassment and child pornography. Governments and legislators across the world have only recently started thinking about how to classify, detect and deter crime in the world of mobile networks, data and devices.
 
In sum, movements such as the mBillionth awards process and community serve as useful annual ‘reality checks’ on what is possible in the world of mobile, while also rewarding excellence and providing food for thought for future innovative experiences.
 
Dr Madanmohan Rao is the editor of “The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook”
and research projects director of Mobile-Monday.
He can be followed on Twitter @MadanRao