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Monday, January 11, 2010

Back from vacation - thoughts on mobile in Sri Lanka & the Gulf states

I got back from my extended break this morning - looking through my news emails, there's clearly been quite a lot going on while I've been away, so it'll take a while for me to process my thoughts on CES, Nexus One and so on.

Before I get back to "the business in hand", though, I want to jot down a few thoughts and observations on things mobile I've seen while on holiday. I was primarily in Sri Lanka, plus a couple of days each in Oman, Kuwait and Dubai on the way there and back.

Now, I generally like to separate work and down-time, to the extent I've had my voicemail saying that I'm not picking up messages, for the past three weeks. So I certainly haven't been doing report-grade research while I've been away. But at the same time, I've certainly been observing people, adverts, shops - so I have a few anecdotes about mobile and wireless that might be of interest to a wider audience. I should point out that I tend to travel around a lot, so I usually see a lot more than just a capital city and its high-end malls, or a plush beach hotel. In a lot of developing, you see a very different side to "mobile" on a local bus between two small towns, versus the lobby bar of the local Hilton.

First - Sri Lanka. I spent most of my time outside the capital Colombo, mostly in a variety of beach and hill towns. The most obvious thing I noticed was the differences between Sri Lanka and its neighbour India, across which I drove last April. There is much less conspicuous mobile advertising - few of the house walls painted in corporate colours so common in India. Where there was display advertising, or point-of-sale material outside various shops, it was 95% dominated by simple brand advertising for the various local mobile operators' prepay SIMs tariffs. As is common in many countries, you can buy credit for prepay anywhere from a florists' shop to a market stall, to one of the numerous dedicated communications/Internet facilities.

I bought a local SIM on the Dialog 3G network plus some credit to use a smartphone as a web browser. While coverage is OK and purchase was easy, getting online was definitely not. I needed to use a PC first to go online to get the settings for the right access point for my phone, and then find a number to SMS to a short code to purchase blocks of Internet time (1 hour etc). In fact, I asked two or three phone shops about which SIM was based to access the web on my phone, and got blank stares. The provisioning / access-control system seemed pretty clunky too - sometimes I got my allotted access time, sometimes I got "unlimited" access, sometimes it seemed to charge me adhoc amounts. It was cheap, whatever, though - nominally about £0.10 (20 rupees) for an hour's access, cheaper than the £0.01p per minute in the many Internet cafes.

That said, handset-based web access definitely seems an unusual exercise in most of the country, although I saw a fair number of shops selling Huawei HSPA dongles for mobile broadband, as well as (a few) outdoor adverts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the upper echelons of the business community in Colombo have BlackBerries, but it's definitely wrong to assume a wide use of "the Mobile Web" among the general population.

A very telling anecdote came from a driver I hired for a day-trip. He laughed and shook his head when I asked if people were "accessing the Internet on a mobile phone". He has a $20 Nokia handset, but bought a $50 PC (an old Pentium 3) for web access. He pointed out that 'normal' people (well, men anyway, it's quite a segregated society) use Internet cafes, and some schools have PCs, but was completely unconvinced by the notion of massmarket mobile web usage. He said that it might appeal to the Colombo business folk - although amusingly he suggested that anyone who cared about mobile Internet use would probably be affluent enough to have a personal driver, so they could sit in the back seat with a laptop rather than struggle with a smartphone. Also, home access to the Internet has high levels of parental supervision, which would be difficult to apply to anonymous prepaid mobile access.

I saw absolutely no advertising that suggested that handset-based web access was seen as important, nor much point of sale material in a couple of stores I peeked into. I saw nobody on the buses, trains, streets, or local markets or restaurants doing anything identifiable as Internet access, although obviously SMS usage was rampant. Everywhere, however, were shops selling low-cost second-hand and refurbished PCs - Colombo even has a dedicated shopping mall just for PC and software/accessory shops.

I've spoken before about the oft-repeated myth of "the next billion" Internet users supposedly accessing the web on their handsets first, rather than PCs. I've often wondered where they might be hiding, outside of Japan and a couple of bits of India. Well, they're not living in Sri Lanka, that much seems probable. (Of course, if you live there and have more concrete observations, please let me know).

One thing that was interesting, though was the pervasiveness of WiFi. Many of the hotels and guest-houses I stayed in had free wireless attached to ADSL (mostly low-ish speeds of 1 or 2Mbit/s) , as did many of the other more tourist-oriented locations like restaurants. Coupled with the Internet cafes, the growing prevalence of tourists with netbooks may well be having a drip-feed effect on the local awareness that "The Internet" is primarily a PC-based phenomenon.

One last comment that springs to mind - looking in some of the phone shops in Colombo (handsets are normally bought unlocked and used with any SIM), I was conscious of continued Nokia dominance... but also a growing number of clones and outright fakes. The very-unsubtle "Nokla" brand with an L rather than an I seemed quite common, as did fake E71's branded "TV Mobile" which were clearly GSM sheep in 3G wolves' clothing.

The much-wealthier Gulf countries were different, although except in Dubai I still didn't get the impression that smartphone or mobile web usage was that common. Adverts for 3G dongles were pretty common though, as were PC-based broadband users in numerous cafes, with the Kuwaiti operators loudly trumpeting 21Mbit/s HSPA+ speeds. Oman had a high density of Internet cafes, especially in smaller cities outside Muscat, where I suspect that levels of affluence and home-broadband ownership are much lower. It was also notable that many Internet cafes combined games rooms with billiards/snooker tables - essentially becoming (again, mostly male) social hubs in a country where there's obviously no "bar" scene.

Ironically, like Sri Lanka, Dubai also had some less-usual handset brands. Stockists of the flashy/vulgar Vertu and Porsche phones were everywhere....

(And a note for the mobile broadband commentators - notthat many embedded-3G notebooks in the swish Dubai mall electronics shops, either).

Note: I'll probably remember some other anecdotes over coming days. I'll add them to this post as edits. And once again, this is just some observations made while on holiday - I'm sure there's a lot more rigorous and detailed research out there, but I always like to notice a few things that stand out.

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