Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Debates on the Mobile Web at MobileActive ’08

We just finished a really good conversation on the the future of the mobile web at MobileActive ’08. Toni Eliasz of Ungana Afrika moderated a discussion where one side of the room was charged with arguing against the mobile web, and the other half for the mobile web. I sat on the “for” side of the room.

MobileActive '08

My Position

The web is made up of data, and we generally think of it as what we access via the PC. However, that same data can be accessed and added to through mobile phones as well. Whether its basic SMS, Java apps or direct web browsing. Data is data – how you access is what matters.

Some of the issues holding back penetration of the mobile web:

  • Accessibility – though this gets better every year
  • Cost – The reason why you can’t directly compare interaction or development of apps and services that use the mobile phone to the PC is because of the cost associated with data and SMS costs on mobile right now.
  • Interface – usability can be a major problem on Java apps, and 160 characters is very limiting.

But the basic truth remains. If you can access and contribute to the global databases of content, then you are in fact on the mobile web.

The mobile web is already here. It’s happening now.

Mobile Web Questions

Mobile Web questions
The questions we debated.

Rabble’s and Blaine’s Positions

Rabble, creator of Yahoo’s Fire Eagle, and Blaine, the original architect of Twitter, continued the discussion with me afterward. The claim here is that the only truly mobile web device is the iPhone, all else is negligible – maybe not in theory, but in action.

Rabble explaining how we access the Mobile Web

Rabble tells me that it’s much like saying that if you could get the web through this blurry glass, even if it’s feasible, it’s not useful or likely. He’s got a good point…

[final note: I was preoccupied while trying to post this with Rabble and Blaines’ conversation…]


  1. Wow, good points. How come this is the first time I heard of FireEagle? Nice!

    Yeah well the iPhone. Remember back in 1998 when everyone was looking for “the killer app” to push WAP forward? My biggest issue with the current state is the interface – even on a state-of-the-art S60 Nokia (with lots of other features) this isn’t solved that well (=> iPhone).

    What about netbooks, btw? What will happen if netbooks with internal GSM modems enter the market and start substituting mobile phones as the only or most common gateway?

    And the other question i have: What exactly is mobile web? The one you access from a mobile phone – or even the usual web content you access from another mobile device?
    Am asking because maybe it’s not only the devices and their software, but also about original content that was designed for both usage patterns (desktop & mobile device).

  2. I am so not a techie! But I was thinking about how Kiva harnessed the mobile phone for their field records. Here’s a blog post from over two years ago about MMS. You can also go onto subsequent posts, seems like they got it working. That research ended, so I don’t know whether issues emerged that make the whole system impractical or not. But it seems to me an example of the sort of position you’re arguing.

  3. I wasn’t actively “there” but I’m sure the early versions of desktops weren’t really as useful at the mainframes back then. Don’t even talk of being standardised.

    As mobile phones get more powerful while more laptops get minified (e,g. netbooks, OLPC) and bandwidth becomes cheaper and faster the difference between desktops and mobile phones will get very blurred.

    And BTW, expensive phones don’t remain expensive forever. After being used and old-fashioned, you can buy them cheap too! It was difficult to imagine how cheap camera-phones could be just a couple of years ago.

    But that’s an interesting analogy there, Rabble.

  4. The point is valid, the iPhone is the only application that can seriously impress any MacBook user away to a mobile device for Web usage.

    BUT — there are millions of people who haven’t used a laptop or even a desktop computer who are perfectly impressed with what they get on a small Nokia 6230 screen here across Africa. Usability sucks if you compare it to what most of us use on an hourly basis – but it means the universe to people who have no other means to get connected to the Internet. It’s really just a getting-used-to question.

    (BTW I’m honored to be featured in the above picture ^^)

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