Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Powering the next billion cell phones

Despite the state of affairs with the world economy, there seems to be a sense of a treasure hunt as far as mobile companies' approach to the developing world is concerned.

Considering all the 'little' insights seriously could go a long way in ensuring the viability of a product or service in such a challenging environment. In other words; I think that the best way to approach this market is with a clear sense of the opportunity it presents and a much clearer sense of its constrains.

From a recent trip to rural India undertaken as a part of a usability research team, I realized that the biggest constraint to the uptake of mobile phone there was not money. From our conversations with existing users, we found that almost all of them used really basic handsets, some even bought as second/ third hand refurbished devices where the cost was just a couple of hundred rupees ($4 or 5!).

Connectivity was also fast becoming a non-issue with major operators trying to set up really extensive rural networks and even competing with each other to offer 'lifetime' pre-paid connections for less than half a dollar! We even saw how local village stores (each, just about the size of a small car) had morphed into outlets there selling small value airtime recharges.

The major concern there was finding a means to recharge ones phone! and to find a phone that required shorter recharges and lasted longer. I'd like to share two interesting developments (thanks again to in the past week give some hope here.

Solar powered phone.
Heres a launch news from Samsung and LG - earlier this year. I think these should become as ubiquitous as solar powered calculators. Rural India is blessed with enough sunshine to at least supplement the need for (non-existent) power sockets!

Ambient radio powered phone.
This is more interesting, though it sounds slightly more ambitious. I have always wondered why this could not be done! There is enough 'free' radio noise around to feed some power circuits. I remember having experimented with Crystal Radios (basically AM receivers that do not need power source) when I was into hobby electronics (the most difficult part I remember was getting the ear-piece right). All one needs to do is have a gazillion tuned circuits to harness the spectrum. Anyways, the good news is that Nokia allegedly has done just that!. This makes for an exciting powering solution for the mobile phone, especially in the Urban context.

I don't know if the news links are really trustworthy news sources, but I do know that these are relevant pointers in the right direction and at scale their cost should be really low.

On a side note, I think it is constraints that push the human ability to innovate and every era and region has its fair share of the same. If all was well with the stone age, I would have been engraving this blog post on a stone tablet now :) - Flintstones anyone ;)?

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