Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/02/28/appsvsweb/

4G, quad-core, pah. Now connect the next billion bods to mobile web

What Nokia, Mozilla and telcos are up to beyond the West

By Simon Rockman

Posted in MWC, 28th February 2013 10:04 GMT

MWC 2013 Phones are here, there and everywhere - but there is a need to drive down costs to connect the next billion or so people to the world of mobile internet.

This was a subject tackled by Manoj Kohli, the MD of Bharti Airtel; Dr Nasser Marafih of Ooredoo; our favourite Canadian, Nokia’s Stephen Elop; and new-boy at the GSMA party Mozilla’s Gary Kovacs, during a debate here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve not heard of Ooredoo, it’s the new name for Qtel Group. At the moment it operates Asiacell in Iraq, Indosat in Indonesia, Nawras in Oman, Nedjma in Algeria, Tunisiana in Tunisia, Wataniya in Kuwait, the Maldives and Palestine, and Qtel in Qatar. Dr Nasser Marafih clearly wanted to reduce the size of his business card.

Ooredoo means “I want” in Arabic and is well placed to look at how to get the unconnected onto the internet. While a third of the world population has connectivity, only 13 per cent of the Arab population is online. Dr Marafih spoke of the social impact of this: if mobile connectivity was so important to the Arab Spring, albeit with such low penetration, the effects of widespread connectivity could be far reaching.

He quoted a favourite GSMA statistic that 10 per cent of internet growth causes GDP to rise by 1.2 per cent, and said that doubling internet usage would take 600 million people out of poverty. This being Mobile World Congress, this data was lobbed at any regulators who happened to be in the audience.

And he followed up with his major beef: “The most important key is the way we deal with government policy makers and regulators and the major issue is spectrum availability, we need access to more spectrum, in some countries we don’t even have regulators yet. Another important thing is taxation because that keeps changing,” he said.

The cost of data is a major problem for his subscribers and he needs to roll out solutions to meet the needs of his customers in a way they can afford.

New York, London, Paris, Nigeria, everyone's talking about… Facebook

There was a similar tale from Manoj Kohli, the MD and CEO of telco Bharti Airtel, which has grown out of its Indian roots and now has substantial holdings in Africa. He looked at the accelerating evolution of mobe tech: “In 1998 3G was launched, and that was phase one for mobile data and it took ten years [to establish itself]. Phase two started with the major mobile growth of Google, Facebook and the other major players that drove content, initially with youth. Phase three was banking, now we start phase four, the growth into the masses.” Some of that growth will be stunning.

Sub Saharan Africa has led internet growth over the last few years. There was a leap in some countries from having no phone to GSM, and the next leap will be no internet to mobile - there will not be a DSL stage. In India Bharti connected 450,000 villages, and usage is not that different to the rest of the world: “We connected the Sahara desert people. They are just like you and me; they love to talk and Facebook.” 92 per cent of Swaziland is on Facebook as is 87 per cent of Nigeria.

His plea to the regulators was more direct. He wants spectrum at 700MHz for high-speed mobe broadband LTE. There has been a lot of talk at the conference about frequency fragmentation but it’s unusual for anyone to come out championing such a radio frequency.

High frequencies, 2.6GHz and the like, are good for cities where capacity rather than distance to the nearest mast is a problem. Lower ones, 700MHz for example, don't often find a cheerleader. But as he’s building base stations in large countries with low population densities, Kohli wants range and low spectrum will give you that at least. Constructing lots of sites is expensive because LTE ought to be hooked up with fibre to be of any decent use. Microwave links do not have the capacity.

And he had a special request for the next speaker: cheap hardware. Specifically high-speed dongles at $10 and smartphones at $30. And he used “Nokia” to mean mobile phone - just like Hoover, Tannoy and Kleenex have become catch-alls for vacuum cleaners, public address systems and tissues. You might expect the boss of a mobile phone network to be more diplomatic, and not use a term that favours one of his suppliers, but it's more of an indication of Nokia's standing in India.

In a stark contrast to Western operators, he was positive about the role of the over-the-top companies - firms that build profitable empires (from VoIP to video) on the backbone of the mobile industry.

“We should be thankful for Google, Facebook and Twitter, these people helped innovation and usage,” he said, but then he isn’t struggling to monetise his network. He’s bracing himself for data consumption growth and a world where mobile is everything – your source of healthcare information, entertainment and contact with your bank.

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. ®