The Great Divide

This is an exciting time for technology, but then again that statement is true for every period of humanity since we found fire. We have a thing for moving forward, that said since the 1900’s some really awesome things have been happening. Almost all of it fueled by war or the rumour of war but it legitimately is an awesome time to be a techy.

It’s even considered sexy now.

In the midst of all this sexy is a sad reality. This progress is not enjoyed the same across the globe. The nature of the technological landscape is such that devices, applications and content created in the developed world, trickle their way downward to the rest of us, lesser mortals. Sure this is down to structural limitations that exist in our countries that stop us from being up to speed but beyond that, those creating the awesome stuff, have a specific customer demographic in mind. Hint, hint, it’s not us.

This trend is clear in just about every major sector of technology, like phones for instance. Majority of the applications created seek to deliver content or services over a data connection, this makes sense because if you look at the United States, data is cheap and fast(3G is just about standard now for telecom companies). So much so that applications have come up that deliver over a data connection, services which were formerly the bread and butter of Telecom companies such as voice and instant messaging. Applications like Viber and Whatsapp allow for text messaging and calling as long as you have a solid internet connection, with both services delivered at a cheaper rate than normal voice calls or SMS.

Other popular applications like Instagram, snapchat and facebook are designed with a specific way of life in mind making them insignificant to consumers from other parts of the world.

Trends in computing and the development of personal computers as well goes to show an industry that assumes it’s consumers only come from the North America, Europe and Asia. The latest laptops feature touch enabled screens and Microsoft’s latest operating system is designed with a vision that seems to believe the future is touch and applications will be delivered over the internet. This might be true but the nature of these advances clearly doesn’t take into account other environments where maintaining a touch screen device might or be a pain or the costs of running an operating system entirely reliant on the internet for operation.

In industry as well, while analysts wax lyrical about a fully computerised production system, these systems are modeled on the assumption that a fully computerised support ecosystem exists, one that includes customers and suppliers.

The assumption of the existence of this ecosystem, a world where everything and everyone is online, has also led to a trend where almost all average everyday activities from shopping to public transport, are getting more and more reliant on computer systems.

Currently online payment systems based on credit cards are necessary for just about any transaction online. Even with the implementation of VISA enabled debit cards by majority of Uganda’s banks, most of them cannot be used for online transactions, and those that can carry a hefty charge.

Are we to bury our heads in the sand then? And weep while the rest of the world proceeds at break neck speeds technologically?. Far from it.

Firstly, these companies are not wrong to focus on consumers in the developed world because they account for the bulk of their profits, it’s true, we’re not a big deal when it comes to technology. And while majority of these applications and devices were not developed with the African consumer in mind, this has not stopped us from taking them and making them our own.

Facebook is now thinking of going mobile, we knew facebook needed to go mobile years ago, sure it was because we had no laptops but we called dibs on the idea. Sticking with facebook, while the developed world was posting pictures of kittens, north africa unfriended their old governments through facebook.

Google recently rolled out offline mode as a default feature for all applications hosted on the Google Apps Engine. Offline mode allows you to continue using your application like normal when your internet connection goes down(it goes without saying, this does not include communication apps). They were probably inundated by complaints from users with spotty internet connections, most of those users were probably from the third world.

Google Africa is also continuing work on technology that will allow sms integration into GMail.

And while online payments using VISA enabled cards is far from a convenient reality in sub-saharan Africa, online payments using mobile money is already happening. Through mobile money, sub-saharan africa has the chance to create a viable alternative to the credit card system which has been a hindrance to online trade for a long time in the region.

Technology, applications and hardware are created to meet a specific need, consumer technology more so. The African story is one of adaptation and innovation. We are hacking together solutions with the parts from technologies that do not suit our situation, and sometimes creating new solutions altogether. With users and developers who, often with little resources have found new uses for technology they should ideally have no use for.

Much of the technology(and business) world is now paying attention to Africa and the emerging markets because this is in a sense the final frontier, the last possible source of real growth as a large affluent middle class emerges. But what they are finding is not a virgin market in it’s true sense, instead it is a continent writing a new set of rules. Tired of waiting and watching, we have evolved.

On the surface, Africa is playing catch up, but if you take a deeper look, this is a continent actively and aggressively creating it’s own identity on the global technology scene. TIA


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