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The next billion Internet users

Rewind to 1995. 'Techies' sit hunched at their clunky desktop machines, eagerly exploring this internet thing with its Unix commands and geeky interfaces.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2011 22:15 IST
Ray Newal

Rewind to 1995. 'Techies' sit hunched at their clunky desktop machines, eagerly exploring this internet thing with its Unix commands and geeky interfaces.

Then came the World Wide Web, and kids and even stay-at-home moms went online on their Pentium home computers to explore the wealth of things they could do. It was a slow but eventful swell to a billion users. Despite an 'internet boom' and subsequent bubble burst, the world changed forever because of the internet. We would never have been able to guess at the things that happened during a period of breakneck-speed changes in technology.

Among them was how the internet would go stupendously mobile on cellphones that went smaller, bigger, smarter, cheaper, and everything in between. Today, 15 years later, many questions still remain about the internet, including how do we grow it wider to embrace the next billion users? How do we do it in one-third the time it took the first time around?

I strongly believe that with collaboration within the industry, it is a distinct possibility. While many of us find novelty and value in social networks, games, and online shopping, the next wave of users will taste the internet as means of 'catching up' to the basic access to media that has eluded them for decades.

But this next wave of users won't be using the internet as we do today. The next billion internet users will come via entry-level mobile phones - phones so far considered too basic to partake of the feast of content available on the Web - from the emerging markets. There are people in the mobile-internet services industry working to bring down the borders that prevent video from being accessible to everyone.

Many of us take the internet for granted. We are busy with our social networking, shopping, searching, gaming and much else. The developed world had near ubiquitous access to phones, television, radio, healthcare, banking and education, but not everyone has been that lucky, and it is the magical combination of mobile phones and the internet that is now expected to make a difference.

While seasoned and privileged users with their smartphones and tablets have moved on to the next level of personalisation online, the new base of users need content in a way that fits in with their environment, income level and still-developing familiarity with technology.

Basic access will solve fundamental problems for the next billion users: connectivity; access to 'television' for the first time, experienced not on a TV set but rather, when they need it, where they need it and to watch what interests them. Probably for free too.

Thanks to basic access, a farmer in Bihar, India, should be able to use his own language to discover videos that will help him learn how to protect his crop of rice from the looming threat of a new disease. A child in Laos should be able to find inspiration from a TED (technology, education, design) lecture delivered in her native tongue, regarding ocean exploration, perhaps sparking a curiosity that leads her to find a career in marine biology. A domestic worker in Lima, Peru, making the two-hour bus commute to her home, should be able to stay entertained the entire route with tella novellas - and for a price she can afford. A teenager in Kabul, Afghanistan, should be able to learn about contraceptives and STDs in a way that is convenient, private and personal.

Of course, this access needs a solution that works on the infrastructure that exists today, and that is affordable by the intended consumer. Interestingly, delivery of an optimal experience on low-cost mobile phones, over all network types including GPRS, is now available and affordable to the majority of the world's mobile subscribers. It's happening in India too, with major content partners already rolling out suitable content in as many as 11 Indian languages, besides English. A user can stream music videos, movie clips, television shows, health and fitness routines, cartoons, educational videos - everything from Bollywood to yoga to TED talks to fashion. Unlike on YouTube, there are no nasty shocks with iffy content.

A range of features, such as auto-bookmarking where viewing takes up where it left off if interrupted, or a collection of videos that will play when you begin and even continue to play when your phone switches from GPRS to Wi-Fi, or an application communicating with the server to assess ups and downs in speed and precise breaks in connection that interrupt the video... these and many such applications are transforming content on mobile phones already. To make all this accessible (beyond app stores like Appia, Getjar, Ovi, Airtel, Tata DoComo) to the next billion users, requires a supportive ecosystem that every stakeholder in this endeavour needs to be an active part of.

The writer is founder and CEO, Jigsee Inc, a mobile video streaming service.