Prototyping to reality: niche mobiles for unmet needs

In May 2006, a little news snippet about a team of undergraduate students having successfully developed Amharic text for the mobile phone caught my eye when I was creating the Design Directory newsletter. Back then, the news article ended with a statement that said,

“Our progress to go this far with limited resources as students made us view this project seriously and push on until we see our people use this product,” says Solomon. “Therefore, with an interested partner who is willing to invest on the realization of the need for Amharic mobile menu software and with consultation we have started with Nokia, we will soon be able to provide this product to the market.”

Now the BBC carries a story of the successful launch of Nokia’s Amharic phone for Ethiopia and the resurgence of SMS use in a market where due to political reasons, in addition to the technological and language constraints, text messaging didn’t exist at all. How will this influence the development of local mobile culture? It will be an interesting observation to make since few other such opportunities exist where the sms function has entered the market years after the mobile itself.

In a related note, IIT Bombay’s scientist types have developed an SMS based answering system for farmers to ask for and receive relevant information. They too seek to develop a handset specially designed for the rural Indian farmer. Though one wonders, based on this Telegraph article, how many Indian farmers can write back in English much less use sms? Would a voice based program like that being developed by MIT in Kenya be more relevant to this audience?  It seems to me that unlike Nokia, few if any of the programs and products in India are being developed from a foundation of understanding the needs of the users first. Particularly the rural residents who are truly different and distant from their technogeek compatriots in Bangalore and Mumbai, in thinking, in learning, in language and not just in geography. This rush to develop rural mobile applications and their outcomes will be interesting to observe as well.

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