How do we bring the web to where people are?

So far, we (Mozilla) have brought our technology to the desktop and are in the process of bringing it to people who have smartphones (Linux, Windows Mobile and Symbian), but the one question we haven’t addressed is, “How do we bring the web to where people are?”. (And what do I mean by “where people are”?)

We have more than 20% marketshare on the desktop and it is growing. The desktop also provides a bunch of alternative browsers. In the smartphone market we will soon make our entrance with Fennec, to compete with the browsers in that space: Mobile IE, S60 Browser, Opera and others.

But if you look at the total market for mobile phones and what countries are using mobile phones and entirely skipping PCs we are missing a large group of people. These are people who aren’t using smartphones but featurephones. For many, the distinction between those two groups of phones is a blurry one, but the main difference is that a featurephone does not run an open operating system and usually has less memory and processing power than a smartphone does. But a featurephone still has the capability to use data on the network.

Looking at the total number of mobile phone sales in the world, you can see that there are about half a billion featurephones in the world today that we are not reaching. And if you look at a geographical breakdown of these sales you can see that the majority of mobile phones sold in emerging markets (Asia, Africa and Latin America) are in the featurephone category. Some even think the growth in these markets will be higher than others, making the disparities even larger.

So, if the majority of people using mobile phones are on featurephones, this raises the question: How do we bring the web to these people?

Current Options

So currently the options for people using featurephones are pretty much limited to:

  1. using a limited browser (not full support for HTML, CSS and Javascript) from companies like Openwave (my former employer), Access, Teleca (Obigo)
  2. a proxy based solution, currently only Opera Mini AFAIK. I haven’t included Skyfire as an option, since it is currently only available for Windows Mobile and some Symbian phones, all phones I consider smartphones.

The way Opera Mini works (well, a simplification of it) is that it delegates the processing of rendering webpages to a server (proxy) that then sends a rendered page to the phone. The benefit of doing this is it eliminates the need for large amounts of memory and processing power plus the client on the phone can be very thin, since it only has to implement some basic functionality (input fields and hyperlinks). It also means that all the data you have goes through that server raising issues about privacy and security. E.g. if you have to do a banking session, the server will know your username and password because it will have to use it itself to establish the connection from the server to the bank.

One More Consideration

Besides us not being able to reach people on featurephones, we also can’t reach people on a variety of smartphones for one reason or another e.g. Android (no support for native apps – yet), RIM (Java-based OS and no support for native apps), iPhone (license restrictions), Palm (big effort to port for small effect) and others. I am interested in hearing on how we can bring the web to there these people are as well.

So What Do We Do?

So should we care about this? If we think about the Mozilla manifesto and our mission, I believe the answer is yes. If you agree, how do you think we can accomplish this: how can we bring the web to where people are?
So, why does this matter?

So should we care about this? If you believe that the Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible, I believe the answer is yes: clearly we can do more to make the Internet accessible for people. If you believe that the Internet should enrich the lives of individual human beings, I believe that the answer is yes.

Original Yahoo Start Page

If all that needed to be done was to render the original Yahoo! start page from 1994, we would not have a problem. But Moore’s law is working on both sides of the equation, and just as featurephones will gain capabilities, so will the web take advantage of the power in high-end devices. Unless someone focuses on the problem of the low-end, it will always be a problem.

To illustrate what I am talking about: there are websites like The Faces of the Fallen project, commemorating American service personnel killed in the line of duty, but we do not have even the roughest idea of how many Iraqis or Afghans were killed in those same wars. Thanks to Google, we can study the New York, Sydney and San Francisco, and yet we know almost nothing of sub-Saharan Africa. This is the digital divide. The Web is a wonderful thing, but it tends to focus more and more of our attention on the rich world.

So, shouldn’t Mozilla be thinking about how it can contribute to solving this?

4 Comments

  1. Mike Beltzner · December 18, 2008 Reply

    Hey Christian, you might be very interested in Dave Eaves’ post on the non-integrated gap, and how that relates to Firefox’s pledges:

    http://eaves.ca/2008/06/16/firefox-3-pledge-map-vs-barnetts-the-pentagons-new-map/

  2. christian · December 18, 2008 Reply

    @Mike Beltzner: Great link, I hadn’t seen that post before.

  3. Anup · December 19, 2008 Reply

    Providing Internet solutions to people who are using feature phone is not just social service. It can also make Business sense with “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” concept by C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart. You just need to find that right Business Solution. So Good Luck.

  4. Mark Surman · January 14, 2009 Reply

    I agree that the answer is yes — Mozilla should care. Our mission is to make sure that the internet remains an open, participatory commons, and that means making sure the web experience is good, safe and flexible for the broad majority of people. If we don’t the internet potentially fragments back into proprietary walled gardens, silos and locked down, platform specific apps, especially on platforms like featurephones.

    If we do care in this way, two questions come up:

    1. What is the ‘open web’ that we want people to have access to no matter what kind of device they have? From a real billions-of-consumers perspective, what is experience we’re looking for? What would success look like?

    and

    2. How can Mozilla best leverage it’s assets to make sure that (more) people on low end platforms have the web experience they deserve? Develop software for these phones (alot of negotiation w/ carriers and handset manufacturers)? Evangelize the importance developing simple, standards compliant versions of important sites that work on feature phones (e.g. m.tripit.com)? Educate consumers about what to look for, this will use the market to drive vendors to offer a better web experience (the people who use feature phones are probably the people who care least about being educated on such topics)?

    I don’t have the answers to these two questions, but I do have an interest in the conversation. Our mission is to keep the web open, and that only happens if (almost) all the people who use the internet on their phones have access all that the web really is.

Leave a Reply