The Developing World, Opera & the Mobile Internet

A story today appearing in the Wall Street Journal nicely captures what's going on in the developing world where, in selected places, the "mobile Internet" is effectively the only Internet:

Indonesia is a nation of more than 17,000 islands, with many areas lacking high-speed cable broadband connections, DSL lines or even regular phone lines for dial-up service. Many people have turned instead to accessing the Internet with their mobile phone in the past year as falling costs, increased bandwidths and improvements in browser technology have made it quicker to surf from a cellphone. For many, browsing on a handheld device is a cheaper alternative to buying a PC or paying for home Internet service.

Anita Rachman, a 23-year-old secretary in Jakarta last year began surfing social-networking sites like Friendster and checking Internet-based email on her midrange Sony-Ericsson phone. Her bill: $25 a month, about the same as a home Internet connection. "And I'm literally online 24/7," Ms. Rachman said.

As the excerpt above suggests, PC costs (notwithstanding some of the recent price declines and OLPC), a majority of people in certain "third world" countries cannot afford a PC. However mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous. As a consequence these countries may reap what is sometimes called "the advantages of economic backwardness." What this means as a practical matter is that residents in these countries can skip "over the PC" right to the mobile Internet.

Indeed, Western Union made a presentation about a thriving mobile payments system in Africa at the recent MMA forum event in San Diego. Amazingly what the video showed was African tribesmen in traditional clothes (shepherds) out with their flocks of animals using mobile phones to transfer money to and from other people. 

The WSJ article also discusses Opera and its gains in some of these markets:

Opera says it has 21 million active users of its Opera Mini web browser, a free product it launched in 2005 with emerging markets in mind; some 200,000 people download the software daily. When a user requests an Internet page through Opera Mini, it is sent via a server in Norway, which shrinks the data by 90%, reducing costs and making it easier to surf on cheap handsets.  

The idea is that Opera Mini is optimized for low-end handsets that are preferred in poorer countries. 

Regardless of whether the Internet access is through a smartphone or a so-called feature phone, it's pretty clear where all this is going: more Internet access via mobiles than on the desktop -- on a global basis -- within a decade.