The Next Billion

SharedphoneWhen considering social software, we tend to conceive of software that is a filtered aggregation of individuated and personalised experiences.

Nokia’s Jan Chipchase and Indri Tulusan reframe this perception by asking what happens when people share an object that is inherently designed for personal use?

There’s a lotta talk about the ‘next billion’ mobile customers, largely from the developing world, but very little real empirical study of what those users might need. Contrast Doom-playing OLPCs with the work of The Fonly Institute

Chipchase and Tulusan’s field study of Ugandan mobile, this past July, documents some very revealing observations…

  • Phone borrowing is is driven by cost and price sensitivity.
  • Phone lending is driven by hospitality, personal relationships and community well-being.
  • The notion of ‘sente’, using prepay airtime as a form of cheap, secure and convenient banking.
  • Employing missed calls – ‘beeping and flashing’ – as a form of free messaging.
  • Phones as community ATMs.
  • Pooling prepay credit between customers when sufficiently small prepay denominations are available.
  • Mediated Calls – where literacy becomes a barrier to participation.
  • Community address books to encourage repeat business and conveniently recall commonly dialled numbers.
  • Step messaging – physically carrying a phone containing a message to its recipient…

Chipchase and Tulusan conclude that sharing is driven by cost, but that low costs lowers the propensity to share; with initial experiences governed by sharing, they also conclude that this may shape future usage. It’ll be interesting to see how individual ownership might affect social cohesion and mobile usage in the very same communities.

What’s striking about the research is that all the observed innovations in shared usage are a result of user inventiveness, rather than handset design or network services; a case of user-generated services that really serve the needs of the consumer…if the mobile industry paid closer attention to such innovation, it might provide that ‘next billion’ users with the tools they actually need.

BTW, during a vacation in Pakistan this year, I noticed that a lot of people carried 2-3 handsets and SIMs as tools to mediate their friendships, family and professional availabilty…


  1. I can’t agree more when you say “What’s striking about the research is that all the observed innovations in shared usage are a result of user inventiveness, rather than handset design or network services…” this is exactly what I observed as well in my studies done in India on Project Miljul.(
    User generated services is a ‘given’ online, wonder what shape/form/experience it can be on mobile, especially with mobile affordances. Also looking at the way adaptive design and architectures for current Web2.0 services is going, its a pity speech/voice hasn’t been used more creatively for building new mobile services… Why use keypad input when you can speak in and say yes/no? Would love to speculate how one can build lightweight user driven mobile architectures that opens gates on users inventiveness to build self-services 🙂

  2. Thanks Priya – by the way, I really wanted to see your session at ETech’04, but had to miss it as there was something equally interesting in the same time slot!
    Many of the barriers you comment on are actually artificial locks, the structural problems of the mobile industry and actually prevent the vibrancy of innovation you see for example with the web.
    Carriers are starting to wise up (as revenues slide!) and so to are the handset guys. I think as you see open source handsets start to arrive this year, from FIC, Trolltech, Tuxphone, etc., you’ll start to see much more experimentation with speech and voice.
    It’s be great to get you along to O’Reilly’s Emerging Telephony conference next month in San Francisco. It’s a great community for the bleeding edge of telephony innovation 🙂


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