Seeking the cellphone future, in Kampala

If people want to share their phones, then there is profit in making phones that are easy to share

Published January 30, 2008 10:44PM (EST)

Jan Chipchase believes Manila and Harare, not Manhattan or Harajuku, are the places to look for breakthrough innovations. By that, he doesn't mean new semiconductor design or advances in genetic engineering. He means new ways of using things that already exist.

Chipchase is a researcher who works for Nokia. While googling around for background information on the topic of "phone sharing" in the developing world, I stumbled upon his fascinating Future Perfect blog, where Chipchase writes about aspects of his work along with his insights into the nature of a world where three billion people already enjoy some form of telecommunications connectivity, and billions more are set to join them soon. If you want to delve into the musings of someone who boasts travel itineraries that include "Chengdu, Delhi, Ulan Bataar, Ho Chi Minh and Lhasa with recent brief stopovers in Kampala and Soweto," and whose descriptions of street-level mobile phone repair culture read as if ripped right out of the pages of William Gibson's "Neuromancer," then Chipchase is your guy. How the World Works certainly didn't hesitate in subscribing to his RSS feed.

One of Chipchase's essays discusses an investigation he and other Nokia researchers conducted into how people use mobile phones in Uganda. The most interesting tidbit: The practice of sente.

Sente is a Lugandan word that means either "money" or "to send money as airtime." As explained by Chipchase, a mobile phone user in, say, Kampala, who wants to send money to a friend or relative back in the home village, first purchases extra minutes for his phone via a prepaid card. But instead of using the authorization number on that card to top off his own minutes, he calls a phone kiosk operator in the home village, and reads out the number. The phone kiosk operator takes ten percent off the top, then disburses the rest in cash to whomever the original party is trying to send money.

Chipchase likes sente, he writes, because it turns "any mobile phone user into an ATM machine." And it's the kind of grassroots generated innovation that Nokia would never have figured out in advance. It just happened.

Nokia just enjoyed a blow-out fourth-quarter, registering a 44 percent increase in earnings, and solidifying its phenomenal market share -- 40 percent of the phones sold in the world last quarter were Nokia phones. One reason for this might be because the company hires people like Chipchase. The company also pays attention to its survey data. A press release announcing two new Nokia phone models last week reported that a survey of users in Pakistan and India found that 50 percent shared their phones with someone else. So Nokia's new phones can be configured to have multiple address books, or track transaction costs and air time for multiple accounts. (Thanks to the Private Sector Development Blog for the tip.)

As Chipchase writes: "the baseline benefits of mobile phone ownership -- personal, convenient, synchronous and asynchronous communication -- are appreciated by pretty much everyone and therefore in principle the market for mobile communication devices is 6.3 billion -- just about everyone on the planet." The implication: phone-sharing is a transitional phenomenon: As soon as you can afford one of your own, you will buy one, and considering the direction that price points for mobile phones are heading, eventually, everyone who wants one is going to have one.

So companies like Nokia don't just target transitional ages -- 13-year-old girls appreciate different features in their cellphones than I do -- but also transitional economic development stages. That takes some nimble dancing.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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