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Get a life! says Elop

Managing money with your mobile was a topic conspicuously absent from the debate - until Stephen Elop took the stage. He talked about Nokia Life, a suite of lightweight applications and services that run on low-end, that is to say Series 40, phones for the developing world. One component, Nokia Money, an ambitious mobile money-managing project in a couple of Indian cities, was a casualty of his efforts to slim down the company.

Instead he touted the value of something he doesn’t make: “You may not have a driver's licence or a birth certificate, but to gain access to a digital economy all you need is a phone number and” - wait for it - “a mobile device”. And then Elop fell into the presentation style he carries so well.

"Historians reckons the industrial revolution affected 10 million. We are going to affect 100 times that. The individuals may only make a few dollars a day, but will have access to technology that was the preserve of the middle class or, in the case of cloud, of big business," he said.

He bigged up Nokia in the way you would expect, listing the things it had been first at and ignored those, like 3G, where it had been late.

In the entire 15 minutes he spoke he didn’t mention the word “Microsoft” once - despite various opportunities to namedrop - and only mentioned the Lumia to say that the top-end Asha phones were close in price to the low-end Lumias.

In terms of user requirements, he said it was the total cost of ownership that mattered and that the Ashas were much more tailored to the emerging-world consumer. “There are lessons from the developed market which don’t apply to the growth markets,” he added.

In a world where smartphones grab all the glory and hype, it’s easy to forget that Nokia deeply understands the emerging world. Adding a torch to budget phones is baffling if you live in Edgware, but it makes a major difference to your life in Ethiopia.

Nokia has some excellent anthropologists, and this is reflected in Elop’s comment that young consumers are the first generation to have a phone not shared with their family or village, but it’s a daily fire fight to provide capacity.

Those punters can’t afford a traditional data plan so Nokia is looking at addressing network constraints with a cloud-backed web browser that gets data compressed by up to 90 per cent. The Nokia express browser apparently saves data consumers $1m a day and the low-bandwidth transfers reduce the strain on the battery.

Nokia’s 301 has standby of 39 days - a statistic that provoked a low whistle from the Apple fanboi next to me. It was interesting to hear Elop singing the praises of a browser which isn’t Internet Explorer - a crown jewel of Microsoft, Nokia's closest pal and biz partner. A browser that transfers significantly less data than others may not be good for the revenues of the previous two speakers, but it echoes what they said in making the service affordable to everyone.

Elop's solution for apps was similarly distant from its Windows 8 partner in Seattle. He talked about how successful the Series 40 had been, adding that Nokia had more than 300 app developers whose Series 40 programs had been downloaded by the million. And that's because they did what the users in far-flung places wanted: the software, built locally, was relevant to their lives.

Then time for Mozilla's Firefox OS to shine

So the stage was set for Gary Kovacs, of Mozilla to promote the Linux-powered Firefox OS for phones with which he wants to replace native software with web apps. All I can say is, Kovacs is an entertaining and engaging speaker.

“I’ve been around in mobile for more than a decade, I know that some of you have me beat by orders of magnitude,” he admitted. I had a quick scan around the audience and failed to spot Marconi. His hyperbole was further unrestrained.

“Collaboration created the standards HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and provides the foundation for innovation and a massive explosion of content. Since AOL dropped walled garden the content on the internet increased by 1,000 per cent," he said, revealing a very US-centric view of the internet.

Kovacs complained that having to download an app every time he wanted to do something messed up his home screen, and that the need to compile code for apps shut out non-developers from building software. Using HTML5 is apparently democratising in a way that using C is not. There may be some credibility to his argument but it’s a fine line.

He portrayed Firefox as opening up the web browser market, which it certainly did, in the face of one company that held 98 per cent (and yet again Microsoft goes unmentioned).

The Firefox model of not having a single app store, and allowing anyone to sell their code directly, could well be the best one in the developed world, and it plays exceptionally well to those operators (cough, Telefonica) who’ve been bitching about the apps duopoly - but it exacerbates the discovery problem.

While Kovacs is all for newbie-friendly HTML5 web apps, Elop sang the praises of developers in the emerging world who are building apps that work well on the phones their fellow citizens can afford, and Nokia has been training people to code. In Indonesia, the mobe maker taught programming to more than 10,000 people. The result was good locally built apps and income for those developers. And one particularly successful app brought in substantial international revenue, we're told.

Mobile World Congress, which is focussed on future tech, where LTE is seen as here and now and everyone has at least three multi-processor-core smartphones, it’s good to know there are some people looking to embrace those who have never seen the internet. ®

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