Inspired By A Startup

Went to a wonderfully inspiring talk tonight and I’m so energized right now! In direct contrast to my last post, this talk has definitely changed my opinion on mobile technology in the developing world–I still do think there are things we need to be cautious about, but with startups and ideas like this one, I think we have a lot to be excited about as well.

So, this Harvard alum came and spoke about his tech start-up… and though, in the past, I’ve never gotten all that jazzed up by social entrepreneurship stuff before, this guy’s vision and plan for his start up was just incredible. By the end of that hour, he had me convinced that clearly I needed to quit school and join his startup–Endless Mobile–and make this happen tomorrow (okay, not really, but he really had me sold on this idea!).

Background

Currently, 6 billion people in the world use a cellphone… but only 4.5 billion people have access to clean drinking water. This is huge–more people own a cellphone than have access to clean water. There is clearly phenomenal space to make a big impact to people’s lives through mobile technologies. Specifically though, this startup is looking at the transformative power of smartphones, not for the poorest sector of society, but for the middle of the pyramid, in CK Prahalad’s terms, in the developing world.

Usually, when people talk about making money, they target the top 10% of the population, and when people want to help people, they look at the bottom 25% of the world’s population. These guys are saying that we can have the biggest impact, and use a smart and scalable business model, if we look at the middle 65%.

Business Model and Impact

The reason is this: with mobile technologies, people are currently only making smartphone apps and content for the top 10% and there are just too many basic infrastructural issues to first consider (ie. electricity, basic literacy, etc) to make smartphone penetration an immediate possibility for the bottom 25%… however, with smartphone prices steadily decreasing (you can now get an Android phone for ~$70, I believe), it’s increasingly becoming an option for this middle 65%, both as the phone of choice and as a computing device.

The reason this matters in terms of social justice and impact is twofold. First, currently, very few apps and content actually exist to support the needs of these users. What does exist is really cool and we need more like it–such as apps that allow community health workers to administer eye exams and do sonograms just with a smartphone alone. These kinds of apps fill a real need for that 65%.

The Mission

The second reason, and what this startup is mainly about, is that currently, global computer/laptop ownership is less than 10% while mobile penetration is 85%… and why can’t we capitalize on that and provide the only-has-a-cellphone user the same quality of a computing experience as the has-a-smartphone-tablet-laptop-and-desktop user?

Smartphones today are x3 as powerful as computers 10 years ago and just as powerful as computers 5 years ago. There is a lot of computing power in these small handheld devices… but at the end of the day, we, the 10%, still do turn to laptops and desktop computers for certain types of tasks, whether in depth researching or updating our resumes. Since the hardware and software costs of desktop (and laptop) computers today are still considerably out of reach for this middle 65% but smartphones are increasingly going to be within their reach, why not capitalize on the computing power of smartphones to give this 65% of the population access to a full computing experience? Why don’t we try to bridge the divide this way?

Their Idea

Their solution is to build a desktop operating system from scratch that can be powered by an Android phone. A user would then just have to pay for the phone (~$70) and they’d get a full-fledged desktop operating system with it. All they need then is to buy a keyboard (~$8) and a monitor (< $20) that can both be plugged into the phone, and they’ve got a fully functioning computer for under $100. Their target consumers are the middle of the pyramid people who can afford a new smartphone… but can’t afford a computer. As for the OS design, they’re making it as intuitive as possible, without all the bells and whistles and unnecessary junk that comes with the operating systems we’re used to today.

Final Thoughts

I think this idea is fantastic and I can’t wait to see this come to fruition. The funny thing is, until now, I’ve been fairly skeptical about mobile technologies in developing countries–largely because when they talk about smartphones in rural areas, they don’t take into account the slew of complicating infrastructural factors, and when they talk about standard phones, SMS services are just not robust enough to do do anything really significant on a large scale. This, however, seems like it can be truly transformative.

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