Forum: under development

XIV.3 May + June 2007
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Can the mobile web bridge the digital divide?

Stephane Boyera

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Since its creation by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, W3C's mission has been to lead the Web to its full potential. Defining new, free, and open technologies for the Web; preventing fragmentation; and working toward a single space of communication and exchange, accessible by everyone from every device, has been the spirit of all W3C actions for the past 12 years. During this history, each time there was a need for integrating specific communities with specific requirements, each time there was a potential for the Web to reach a new area, W3C organized and launched specific initiatives. Integrating not only experts in technologies, but also other key players involved in the domain (government agencies, other standardization bodies, etc.).

In 1997, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) [6] was launched to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities. In 2005, the Mobile Web Initiative (MWI) [7] was established to make the Web accessible from mobile phones. In 2007, it is time to think about the next step. While more and more people are using the Web, a significant number of people still do not have regular, effective access and the ability to use digital technologies. This is known as the Digital Divide.

While there is a general agreement among specialists on the importance of bridging the Digital Divide, there is disagreement on the exact solutions. The One Laptop per Child initiative suggests that an inexpensive laptop using mesh networks may be the way forward [4]. Microsoft thinks that the solution is to provide a Windows-based mobile phone that can transform into a computer when a TV set and a keyboard are plugged into it [3]. While each solution has its own strengths, both suffer the same weakness, namely that these solutions require large-scale deployment, which would take years. So perhaps there is a third way to explore a solution to take advantage of the 2.4 billion-plus mobile phones spread across the world and provide them with direct Web access.

Starting from this observation, and driven by its Mobile Web Initiative, W3C decided to investigate this third direction by organizing an International Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries[1].

Broadly speaking, representatives from two communities participated in the workshop: those inventing new technology and those with expertise in social and economic issues in developing countries. The event provided a great opportunity to bring those groups together, but it revealed that there is still a gap in terms of the potential of the technology and the reality of needs and usage in the field. The workshop was an important step toward further cooperation between the two communities. One of the important points is that successful ICT projects rely on the cooperation of experts from both areas, as well as business developers.

Let's not forget that the real goal of providing ICT in developing countries is to improve the lives of underprivileged populations.

It is essential not to forget that the real goal of providing ICT in developing countries is to use Web technologies as a means of delivering services to improve the lives of underprivileged populations. Using mobile phones as the support for health, banking, government services, education, and business is considered most likely to succeed. However, using the Web and Web technologies as the software platform for developing those services is not yet a reality.

Today, the most widespread way to provide such e-services on mobile phones is with SMS-based applications. SMS is easy to use, the cost is generally low and predictable (e.g., no cost for receiving a message, low and known cost for sending a message), and it is generally available on all phones. SMS-based applications, however, have limited functionality; they are text-only, limited in size, and provide only basic services such as single query/response. Also, interoperability between operators is a problem.

Adopting the Web as the platform for developing future services requires work on the following blocking factors:

  • Browser availability: Users browse when there are even minimal browsing capabilities on phones [5]. However, some older phones have just WAP 1.0 (WML-based) browsers, and there is almost no WML content available. New low-end phones tend not to have any browsing capability at all.
  • Configuring the phone to enable browsing: SMS's immediate accessibility is seen as a blocking point to using browsers.
  • User interface: Using mobile browsers is still problematic; for example, entering a URL is difficult.
  • Cost: Given the price and the unpredictable costs of data services, people are hesitant to use a Web browser without knowing how much they will be charged.
      However, there was a general agreement at the workshop that the Web is providing unique opportunities to bridge the Digital Divide:
  • a standardized platform to ease service development,
  • inexpensive service development and hosting,
  • large scope and wide audience,
  • and easy availability and discoverability of existing services (e.g., through search engines, portals, etc.).

Today's latest low-end phones, aimed at emerging markets, are not supporting Web-browsing capabilities well. Web content is getting richer and richer—it requires bigger and more colorful screens, more computing power, and more memory to be rendered. Web 2.0 is about video and music, and browsers able to cope with this content can't fit into the 30 or 40 KB limit imposed by cheaper hardware. However, before Web 2.0, there was the Web 0.1, the Web of textual information only. At that time, computers had only a few MB of memory, a VGA screen, and a 9600 Baud modem—hardware very similar to the low-end handsets of today.

To bootstrap the process of bringing the power of the Web to underprivileged populations, we need a small, text-only Web browser with a footprint near that of the old WAP browsers, but with the ability to parse and render XHTML-basic. We believe this would bring many benefits. It would ease the task of those who are providing e-services through SMS by offering a language with hyperlinks and enhanced interaction through forms. From the user's point of view, it would connect people to the Web. Of course, this does not provide access to video, to sounds, and to photos, but it permits users to access information available on the Web.

The point is not to create a low-level Web for developing countries. Since its creation, the philosophy of W3C is to have one Web. If authors of Web content are following the right guidelines (see WAI guidelines [8], MWI guidelines [9]), they can design very rich and attractive documents for users with full browsers (on PC or high-end phones), and the information embedded in those documents will still be available via limited browsers. Sites like Mappy or Google Maps deliver driving instructions: Clearly, having a GPS plus a real-time updated map is the best way to go, but having a list of textual instructions also allows a user to reach his destination.

Determining the exact technical requirements of such browsers needs further work as well as cooperation and concerted effort between all the players of the mobile industry, as well as cooperation between existing standardization bodies, like W3C, GSMA [10], and OMA [11].

Also important is to enable local communities to develop their own applications to fit their exact needs. Having an easy-to-use, easy-to-develop, standardized platform goes a long way, but equally important is teaching people how to develop applications for this platform. Even though there are lots of mobile phones, compared with the number of PCs, it is very rare to see Mobile Application Development courses taught at the universities in underdeveloped countries. Developing such courses is crucial to enabling people to develop applications fitting the needs of their own country.

Finally, it is also important to cope with the problem of internationalization of content: being able to enter data and view content in local languages.

In terms of next steps, the workshop suggested future directions:

  • First, this event demonstrated the need for a public forum to share and benefit from experiences in running ICT projects in developing countries. This forum would be a place where experts in mobile technologies and experts in ICT in developing countries could share expertise. This may lead to the creation of best practices and guidelines for providing mobile e-services in the developing world.
  • It is essential to understand the characteristics of low-end devices in terms of memory, SIM card, and availability of Java, etc., and then define the size and capabilities of a lightweight Web browser.
  • The location of the workshop specifically allowed participants to get more feedback and information on the Indian market. It is interesting to understand commonalities and specificities between different regions of the world, such as Africa and South America, in terms of needs and usage.

Given these important results, and the number of directions to explore, it is now time to see whether W3C can gather the required critical mass of experts as the roots for a new worldwide initiative on bridging the Digital Divide and making the Web accessible and useful for underprivileged populations.

back to top  References

1. Home page of the W3C Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries:

2. Participants list of the W3C Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries:

3. Microsoft FonePlus Project:

4. One Laptop Per Child:

5. BBC Wap use flourishing in Africa:

6. W3C Web Accessibility Initiative :

7. W3C Mobile Web Initiative :

8. W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines :

9. W3C Mobile Web Best Practices :

10. GSM Association (GSMA):

11. Open Mobile Alliance :

back to top  Author

Stephane Boyera

About the Author:

Stephane Boyera joined the W3C staff in 1995. Leading the W3C device independence working group since 2001, he was a key participant in the development and launch of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative. Since 2005, he has been managing the device description working group. Stephane also took part in the management of the voice activity and multimodal activity till the end of 2005. He is now leading the W3C's work on the mobile web in developing countries.

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