I spent the last two days in the Mobile Web Africa conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. The first quite surprising fact for me was the attendance; Around 200 people everyday interested to learn and talk about Mobile Web. Based on my past experience, with other related event like Africom, this was a real surprise. The agenda was a mix of topics from mobile advertising to mobile for social development, and mobile social network. Very different people, with various backgrounds, including lots of self-made entrepreneurs. As far as I can tell, the audience was mostly from South Africa, Johannesburg and Cape Town, with also few people from Kenya. In terms of talks, the three best for me by far were from Eric Cantor, the head of Grameen Foundation in Uganda, Kannan Pashupathy, Director of Google Engineering for Africa, and Chaals from Opera. There were other very good speakers but not on topics I’m particularly interested in like Mobile Social Network.
What did I get out of it? Many things! The first one is about W3C, and the complete lack of awareness among the people present in the room on the work done in the Mobile Web Initiative (MWI). Listening to the questions, most of people had never heard about the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices or MobileOK. I realized that one of our mistakes in MWI is that we associated Mobile in Developing Countries and Mobile for Development. I realized during these two days that these are two different topics. There is a huge market for those targeting the middle class who have a heature phone or a smartphone, and may or may not have a computer. This sounds particularly true in South Africa and Kenya at least. Therefore, I believe there is a need for more dissemination of W3C work among developer communities, and IT/Mobile industry in South Africa and other similar countries.
The second thing which surprised me was the different understanding people have on the requirements for social-oriented services. It might be due to the fact that the vast majority of the room didn’t have this background (developing services for underprivileged populations), but it was interesting to see discussions around illiteracy; languages; and ability to search, find and use content on the (mobile) Web. For example, I had some lively discussion with Ory Okolloh who founded and is executive director of Ushahidi. She stated that for instance there is no issue with using the Web, or mobile services, people can search and find what they need, with the help of the community. She also mentioned the fact that in Kenya people do not want to use localized software, but prefer English version. Some other people mentioned also the fact that illiteracy is not an issue, and people always find a way, through e.g. the community to get access to information sent in an SMS. To be honest, I don’t fully subscribe to this point of view, and I was not alone.
Another discussion, as always!, was around SMS and USSD versus Web-based/voice-based services. Here again, lots of debate to decide if SMS is dead, is dying, will dye or will grow! At least for now, this is surely still the most used technology in the Development sector. I’m convinced that SMS will be there for a while, but the new generation of mobile applications, mobile Web and VoiceXML apps, is coming up for sure, too!
All in all, this was an interesting conference, and the size of the audience led me think that the Mobile Web is growing quickly in Africa !