Déjà vu and progress in Asia

As inventors of the Internet we Americans can sometimes grow overly complacent about our positions as world leaders of high tech applications. Recently I received an indication of my backwardness in the form of an email from a colleague and long-time friend in Indonesia. My friend prompted this exchange by sending me a news item about the email-induced outflow of jobs from London to the more rural communities–all in response to London’s burgeoning gridlock. My reply was: “This is pretty funny since I remember a similar article in The Times, although without the email link, about 30 years ago. Oh how time flies — or not. What has email done for Jakarta traffic so far?”

My friend responded that email was no longer the current thing. Rather, SMS is the main means of e-communication among the Indonesian technorati. The NOKIA 9500, with its camera, Bluetooth and keypad, is the big seller in Jakarta. There is no limit on the length of “short” messages (SMS) from/to the NOKIA 9500 although the number of messages one can send per month is limited by the depth of one’s pockets. So my friend routinely sends long SMSes instead of emails since, like email, the SMSes are charged by the message rather than by its length. Voice and SMS discounts from the local providers include a point system by which users can earn additional free messages in subsequent months. “So the savior of cellular worldwide is not the revenue from voice communication, it is the revenue of people communicating thru SMS, [since it can be done] one to many as well as as one to one.” Furthermore, sending an SMS message, that only requires pushing the “Send” button, is simpler than sending an email, with its requirement for dialing the ISP, going through the email transmission routine and, finally, sending the email–many more steps.

The wireless communication extends to banking, retail transactions (since the savvy merchants are tied into the banks) and, as in the “old days”, keeping in touch with home, although these transactions are done mainly with a Motorola VRAZOR. “If I travel within South East Asia/ASEAN countries, I seldom bring my laptop along, my NOKIA 9500 is more then enough; I can download my e-mail, my Mom can call me directly from her cellular anytime she wishes, and even leave a voice message. . . . So here in Asia, the Killer Application is not on your PC; it is on your Handphone, especially for rural areas, where electricity is scarce, the Handphone is more useful.”

In short, my friend personifies the anytime, anywhere attributes of teleworkability. Yet, here she is in a so-called developing country. Now admittedly my friend is the CEO of a major computer services company (that helped develop the online banking system) but the trend is clear: telework is becoming more global every day, everywhere, spread by the entrepreneurial spirit inherent in most countries where it isn’t suppressed by governments, entrenched mega-corporations, or religious fundamentalism.

The remark about rural areas joining in brings up the possible next big thing: Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The idea is to make laptop computers so inexpensively that it will be economically feasible to distribute them to kids in developing countries. Built into the laptops will be self-connecting mesh network capacity so that groups of PCs can intercommunicate without the need for a formal structure like that required for cellphones. I suspect that it won’t be long before the OLPCs are used by the grownups as well as the kids. For work as well as education. For economic development that skips the historical path from the plow, through the production line, to the PC.

Which will win? The smart cell phone or the OLPC? In Asia, according to my friend, the OLPC will have an uphill fight, given the second hand market for PDAs and Smartphones. But does it matter? Both are technologies that are helping (or will help) bring developing countries into the future much faster than we used to think.

Look out, you complacent Americans.

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