Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Apps that make low-end cell phones valuable

There was a time when young people excited about electronics would build themselves a radio! Now young people excited about computing and the Internet create an app! I will talk about apps that make low-end cellphones valuable. I hope to trigger many student projects with this posting.
As far as I know, it is impossible to get apps to run on most low-end cell-phones. These devices are nevertheless very important in countries like India, where they constitute a large fraction of cell phones in use. They serve millions of users who do not have access to the Internet for various reasons. My focus is on school students in small towns and in rural areas. What I say in this blog does not apply to sophisticated smart phone users. Since 2/3rds of cell phones are in the hands of rural users, my focus is socially very relevant.

An accompanying post on my other blog at http://obvioustruths.blogspot.in/2012/09/the-reality-of-mobile-value-added.html provides relevant statistics on the way cell-phones are used in India for non-voice services. The key points arising out of the discussion in that post are the following: The average cell phone user in India uses less than Rs 90 of services per month. About 70% of this is for voice calls, leaving only Rs 24 for other services. Mobile apps and games take hardly Rs 5 per month. A major factor that inhibits use of Internet applications on the cell phone is the complexity of the human interface. Most users do not know how to download and install apps and how to use a browser effectively. They do not know how to get information on these topics and learn these skills.

My thesis is that the SMS (or texting) interface is easy to use for a large fraction of the population. I also believe that a whole lot can be achieved using a servlet on the web somewhere. It can serve a large population that is comfortable with the SMS interface. Of course, in parallel it can also serve smart phone users with access to a 2G or 3G service.

I was thrilled to discover a few months ago that the site txtweb.com (created and being maintained by Intuit Inc.) offers a painless SMS interface for servlets to deliver services. This site transforms SMS messages into http queries to send to your servlet and maps the servlet’s responses into SMS messages that are sent back to the users. There is no charge for this service. There is a healthy developer community and a forum.

Txtweb.com offers a challenge to every student who can create a servlet. It is not mere programming. The opportunity challenges you to think like an entrepreneur and identify a service that meets the needs of a large number of cell phone users. Creating a service like that is a good project for a team, as it requires talents of different kinds: to visualize a good application, to find necessary resources on the Web, to design and implement the software and to publicize the service.

For an example of a service of the type I have discussed, try the one I have implemented. It supports school students, typically those in the 9th and 10th standards in their efforts to learn the English language. It helps any interested user to test his or her own ability to guess a word that fills a blank in a given sentence meaningfully. It is well-known that this a good test of English comprehension.

The site focuses on common English words found in every science textbook. These are not “scientific” words, but words that every English-medium student of science has to know. The idea is that students can take a new test every month and know where they stand. Testing is an important part of teaching, but only a small part. Ideally the student should take the help of a relative or friend to discuss questions. The student should read English language books outside the syllabus – ideally story books that are very interesting. They should learn to use a dictionary well and frequently. 

The following web pages describe how this service can be accessed over SMS from within India 
http://www.hydrusworld.org/Tests over SMS.html

and over Instant Messaging from anywhere on the Web
http://www.hydrusworld.org/Tests over IM.html
I should mention that my Java Servlet is hosted on the Google App Engine cloud for free (visit https://developers.google.com/) for information on this facility.
I hope that readers of this post would go on and create many other services to serve a needy population.

Srinivasan Ramani 

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