SMS-voice service to bring internet to developing market masses

The Guardian has news of an interesting product claiming to bring many of the benefits of the internet to mass market phone owners using a combination of SMS and voice.

The service, called OnSiteMobile, is developed by HP Labs and aided at targeting emerging markets with large populations and a low rate of technology adoption, such as India where an estimated 600 million people use low-end devices – more stats on India at this recent post.

From the article:

By issuing commands to so-called TaskLets – the servers of which are based in the cloud – users can perform tasks such as checking the status of an order, requesting a quotation or booking a doctor’s appointment.

Sudhir Dixit, director of HP Labs India, said SiteOnMobile aims to fill a void left by the high cost of mobile bandwidth and relatively low levels of tech literacy.

“We felt people consume a lot of content – the newspaper market here is booming, for example – and people are very interested, but they don’t know how to consume it” Dixit said. “So we asked how to simplify web access for mobile users – how can we get these mobile users to access the web?

“That was the biggest challenge we faced, we felt the fastest way would be to use SMS and voice. The web, as we approached it, should be not of pages but of tasks – you go to the web because you want to want to accomplish a task.

The product does not yet have a long-term business model, but Dixit is confident of its commercial potential – he suggests partnerships between mobile networks, small business owners and HP. Three companies are currently testing the product.

This is an interesting project which may serve its audience well.

However, it is essentially a somewhat unconventional ‘walled garden’ approach which allows only restricted access, use and benefit of the web. While that is worth more than no access at all, the benefit of the internet goes beyond simply tasks, as it allows vast access to information (censorship aside) and communication.

In the longer term, simplified mobile access is the ideal, but challenging, approach for the mass market, although this product could make a valuable difference to life in certain developing markets.