Talking business – inclusion through the ‘cloud’Including the digitally un-includable – this could be the biggest untapped ICT market in the world
My last eLetter ended by stating:
The mobile phone is rapidly becoming – by default – the device most of the world’s people will use to access the Internet. The mobile phone is affordable and easy to use, limited in many ways, but not as limited as many of the people who use it. Sadly, a great percentage of the world’s population can barely read and write – if they can read at all. Windows, Explorer, Firefox, in fact almost every application many of us use regularly, are as beyond the grasp of non-readers as rocket science. Cloud applications tailored for the mobile phone, with visual and voice interfaces that can meet the needs of these people might well be a worldwide ‘killer app’ for cloud computing.
That is, it could be the next killer app – if the sector would just wake up.
Last week, I spoke about this at the CITEL Technology Forum held in coordination with AHCIET (Asociación Iberoamericana de Centros de Investigación y Empresas de Telecomunicaciones) and the ITU in Costa Rica. CITEL, the Inter-American Telecommunications Commission – is an entity of the Organization of American States. It is there that governments and the private sector work to coordinate regional efforts to develop the Global Information Society.
I have written in several eLetters in the last year or two about one of the great failures of current digital inclusion programmes. Digital inclusion programmes, as such, are not entirely failures; they are relatively successful at including the includable – those that can read and write (or can easily learn to) and are interested in using information and communication technology (ICT) for more than games and Hi Mom-emails. More often than not, though, a great percentage of those in these inclusion programmes – like the majority of people in the developing world – are functionally illiterate.
A functionally illiterate person can often read and write, but not well enough to understand any but the most basic – this is a cat – text. Without applications they can use, without fully supportive technological ecosystems, these people will never reap more than marginal benefits from ICT and the hoped for economic and social inclusion will not occur. For these people, and for the microenterprises where most work, digital inclusion has failed.
How can someone who can barely read and write benefit from the Internet? Can they benefit from basic applications – let’s say MS Office? Of course not! What use is MSWord to someone who can barely read or write or Excel to someone who has only the barest ability to deal with the simplest arithmetic operations? These applications, physics, biology, engineering and just plain reading are equally incomprehensible to more than half the world’s workers.
Illiterate is not synonymous with unintelligent; most illiterate people have had little schooling, little opportunity to practice or have little talent for reading and writing. Reading and writing talent, like mechanical talent or artistic talent often has little to do with intelligence. There are PhDs with no artistic or mechanical talent whatsoever and brilliant, talented and inventive mechanics and artists with no talent for reading.
This story is quite a bit more complicated than it seems at first glance, but let us leave it at that for now. Functional illiteracy is extremely high throughout the world – over 40 per cent, in even the most developed regions such as the USA and the EU. Look up functional illiteracy in the Wikipedia and prepare yourself for a shock. This is not only a question of schools! After five-thousand years, this is the best the schools can do. Many people are just not properly equipped from birth to deal with reading and writing.
If we want to promote social and economic inclusion, we need to offer this enormous mass of workers digital devices and applications they need and can use. Only then will we achieve the hoped for economic and social impact. This is a killer app – and a lifesaver app at the same time.
Imagine the impact of mobile phone systems and applications that eliminate the written word and use voice, graphics and video to handle the tasks the small (micro) businesses where most of the functionally illiterate population works.
There is no education better than real-time on-the-job training. To be productive, even university graduates must learn on the job. If a worker can access a manual built upon symbols and photos, get video instructions for any task or procedure, get real-time spoken or visual diagnostics to handle difficult repairs, verbally handle accounting or get practical business advice or get help with hundreds of common business and practical problems – all on their mobile phones – their productivity, their earnings and social inclusion all grow. Multiply this by hundreds, thousands or millions of workers and local, national and regional economies grow. This creates jobs and economic inclusion. Workers that earn enough can let their children go to school and get a better start in life. This is social inclusion. This is digital inclusion.
Today, we have the technology we need for a good start, if not yet for a great finish. We have voice, voice recognition and response, graphics, video, augmented reality (aviation ‘heads-up’ displays, for example), databases and knowledge bases, hardware of all sorts and much more. Cloud computing offers a hassle-free infrastructure to reliably, simply and economically deliver the applications and content to users’ handsets. Cloud computing hides the true complexity of the supporting systems, infrastructure and applications from the user.
Nevertheless, there are some very real problems. First, there are no business applications or content today not based upon the written word. In addition, there are no applications and content especially designed to meet the needs of the functionally illiterate micro-enterprise worker. Worse, we do not even know what they, and the small businesses they work at, really need to be more productive! This is an area where partnerships between businesses and academia, with universities the world over, might be uncommonly productive.
Next, there is no ICT/social ‘ecosystem’ to support the development of such an ambitious and, yes, costly, programme. I have spoken with many people in many companies, governments and organisations concerning the need for such a programme. Everyone agrees but no one does anything; in truth, no one can do anything – that is, no one can do anything alone.
Yes, there are problems, but this can be good, incredibly good, business. It is a new market, made up (just as a start) of more than half the world’s workers – workers who now use little if any, except voice, ICT products or services. It can be a win/win proposition for the sector – manufacturers, software, applications and content developers, service providers, operators suffering from bit-pipe disease – and for society as a whole.
Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world”. The problem with developing a programme, with developing the tools, for true digital inclusion is the lack of a place to stand – a base, a platform. Alone no one person – so far, me – no one company, no one country or organisation has the resources to develop everything needed to effectively resolve the problem. There is no business model that will survive without a broad base of support, without a true industry-wide technological base, without a wide reaching set of accepted standards and without ample support from governments and international institutions.
I called my presentation at CITEL, ‘Talking Business’. ‘Talking business’, means talking seriously. A ‘talking business’, is a business based upon the spoken – not written – word.
I strongly believe there is a need for a broad-based organisation dedicated to creating a viable talking business ecosystem; let’s say a Talking Business Forum. It should be comprised of thought leaders, ICT sector players (manufacturers -chips, data centers, network equipment, etc., software and application developers, content providers, service providers, telcos – fixed and wireless) governments, universities and international institutions. Anyone that can contribute to the vision is welcome.
It is going to be a battle to move ahead, to get a critical mass of companies and institutions to sign on to the vision and create a working, officialised, organisation and real tools for digital inclusion, but the battle matters; it can be won.
Would you like to help me make some waves? Rock the boat? Shake the world? Do you think your company or organisation might be interested in helping setup or participate in an industry-wide, a worldwide, forum? Get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) let’s chat and exchange ideas – we can make a difference.
If we don’t try, something terrible will happen – nothing!
The next issue of Connect-World Asia-Pacific will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: PTC, Hawaii (18-21 January 2009) and Carriers World Asia, Hong Kong (16-19 March 2009).
The theme of this issue of Connect-Word Asia Pacific will be – Convergence, communications and business innovation.
Communications with customers, suppliers, service providers, financial institutions and the like are the lifeline of any business. Today’s converged networks, converged devices and applications that take advantage of the possibilities a converged environment brings are revolutionizing the office – or the home in the case of tele-workers/ telecommuters – to deliver a seamless work environment to workers wherever they may be. The converged environment has stimulated a wide variety of innovative applications for large and small businesses alike. Many of these applications are not just new ways of doing the same things, but are real changes in the way we do business or are new businesses in their own right. Interaction is facilitated, costs are eliminated or drastically cut, and collaboration with colleagues, clients and suppliers anywhere at any time is enhanced. By minimizing the need to travel, applications such as video-presence are also starting to reduce business travel – and the user’s carbon footprint.
This sort of convergence offers a powerful way to simplify business processes, and its implications are far reaching and complex. Cloud computing, software as a service (SaaS) special applications, Swiss knife communications and computing devices, innovative applications and a host of storage, communications and network equipment will be needed to make this work efficiently and cost effectively.
This issue of Connect-World Asia-Pacific 2009 will examine the implications of these far-reaching converged systems and the impact they have not only upon users, but upon the complex ecosystem that will make these innovative communications systems possible – the networks, communications equipment, user devices, software and business applications.
Asia-Pacific I 2009 Media Pack; Click here