Web literacy & mobile for development

Within the decade, fully half the planet will have access to a smartphone. The hardware is undergoing commoditization and network coverage is expanding faster than anyone imagined. Mozilla is participating in this transition with Firefox OS and by bringing ultra-low cost devices to market (like the $33 phone that just launched in India).

As Mozilla positions itself to ensure a brighter future for technology users in the developing world, we have a lot to learn. Fellow Mozillians Stephanie Turner, Andrew Sliwinski and I just returned from Bangladesh, where we attended a workshop organized by our colleagues at GSMA, the association of mobile network operators.

Meeting with users, Mozilla volunteers and mobile industry stakeholders in mobilizing countries helps to understand where we can have a development impact. We think that we can measure that impact through increased web literacy and the opportunities available to people who have developed web skills.

The local content problem

With over 40% mobile penetration, Bangladesh has essentially leapfrogged the web and is going straight to mobile

In the development world, many believe that empowering the next billion mobile web users begins by addressing the lack of locally relevant content. A lack of locally relevant web content precludes broader uptake of the mobile web.

In a market like Bangladesh, urban mobile owners are gaining access to newly deployed 3G networks. This means, in theory, that everyone with a device enjoys a connection to the whole internet, but pays for incremental access. To access the web, people turn cash into network credit sold by sidewalk vendors. On a mobile network in Bangladesh, you might deposit 500 taka ($6) for 2 gigabytes of 3G access.* But $6 is a lot to spend, especially in a country where 75% of people live on less than $2 per day (and when there’s not a lot of compelling local web content to justify the spend).

Right now, a small handful of services like WhatsApp & Facebook are driving 3G consumption in emerging markets. This is complicated by the fact that many operators are providing free or discounted access to those services, so there are few reasons for users to venture outside their comfortable walls.

Because many countries have leapfrogged the internet and gone straight to mobile, they lack both dynamic content industries and the folk culture of the web that you see in the developed countries. There was never a generation of early adopters rolling out home pages with <blink> tags, nor DIY software entrepreneurs creating clever new services.

Access + opportunity

The development world is presently focused on connecting the next billion; providing people in developing countries with access to the internet. The very urgent follow-on problem is making sure that the internet they get is actually an engine of opportunity.

In the long run, a less open web (and a less “web literate” society) will guarantee that mobile users in developing countries will pay into content and services provided entirely by foreign platform providers (if not with dollars, or lost tax receipts, then with user data).

At the same time: while a mobile phone packs 30 years of engineering, semiconductor manufacturing and user experience—the very culmination of the idea of a “personal computer,”—it’s not very good at content creation. It is an access and consumption device, necessarily constrained to accommodate its touch interface and pocket-form factor.

This is what you might call a digital equity problem: that while people in the developing world are finally joining the open web—a possibility-laden, wondrous digital economy—many won’t have the means to productively participate in it.

Part of Mozilla’s role here is helping to maintain an open, permission-less technology platform (HTML5) and making it easy for people to freely create and share content and services. But we can do more.

Mobile Opportunity Intitiative

We’ve recently started a working group, which we’re calling the Mobile Opportunity Initiative. The purpose of this initiative is to study what Mozilla, working with the mobile industry, can do to empower the next billion web users.

As a first step, we’re doing two things.

Grow a volunteer network to increase web literacy worldwide

First, we are working to grow our volunteer network to increase web literacy in more countries around the world.

We have Mozilla volunteers in literally every corner of the globe. They’re the ones who localized Firefox into 90 languages, installed it on every computer they could find, and spread it like a good message.

Mozilla community in Dhaka with mobile industry representatives

If we can rally Mozilla communities to become digital opportunity sherpas for new web users, that’s a good start to addressing the local content problem. Mozilla volunteers can help new smartphone users understand the potential they hold in their hands, how to make sense of the web, how to facilitate exchange, and imaginatively use technology to support a livelihood. We think that by empowering lead users, we can enable innovation at the edges, grow the long tail of content, and socialize technology practices more quickly.

Through Webmaker.org, Mozilla provides a platform for developing and teaching web skills. The Webmaker platform is currently localized in 23 languages, and there is a committed volunteer corps already doing this in more than 30 countries. We have a very interesting, long-range movement on our hands. This is positioning Mozilla as a lasting movement for technology-passionate young people to grow the values of DIY, entrepreneurship, and the open web.

Experimenting with content creation on mobile

The second thing we’re doing is developing an new piece of software with a lot of really interesting ideas built-in. In short, we’re trying to enable new smartphone users to make and share apps from their devices, and more actively participate in shaping the web.

This work has been brewing for a little while inside Mozilla. It started with a commissioned concept from Frog Design, later morphed to desktop Appmaker, and is now evolving into a mobile content creation tool. It’s in early prototype stage now and the team is evaluating how to take it forward.

There are, no doubt, lots of content creation tools for mobile. But what will really set this initiative apart are two things: localization and community. The mobile Webmaker tool will be available in Hindi, Bengali, and many more languages. It will help Bengali people make Bengali apps for Bengali users, and distribute them through word of mouth, messaging, and other channels.

Scale and impact for this tool calls for working closely with mobile network operators, who are the front-end for new mobile users’ entry onto the web. Imagine what would be possible if we pre-installed something like this on every Firefox OS phone, and worked with operators to pre-install on certain Android phones. If “creation” was part of the first-run experience, people’s whole perception of mobile could change. In a smartphone-first country, large numbers of people might start seeing mobile as a creative, not merely consumptive medium. Buyers of new SIM cards might receive an SMS inviting people to create their first web app, or to attend a digital skills training provided by the operators. This kind of thinking wouldn’t just benefit users—it could also benefit operators, measured in data and even increases in revenue per user. All of these things could help kickstart more lively and equitable digital economies in developing countries.

Next steps

Over the next six months we’ll be testing some of these ideas with mobile network operators, working on training materials, and partnership models. We’ve got some really smart folks working on this, including alumni from Frog, Nokia, OLPC and Microsoft. And the guy who led Mozilla Thunderbird to become a 25 million installed-base product is leading the initiative. Very excited to see where the team takes this work.

All of this work comes back to a simple idea: that to get the full benefits of this mobile revolution, we need an open web and a web literate planet. Would welcome your insights in the comments.


*For many, a mobile balance will also serve as a bank account, accelerating the move to cashless transactions and making mobile as much about financial inclusion as it is digital inclusion.

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