In India, a lack of Internet access and an abundance of cell phone helped IBM realize that the next billion people would probably get a chance to access the World Wide Web if they could do it via a cell phone.
India has some 545 million cell phones and a measly 80 million Internet users. The high illiteracy rates in India mean that a lot of people, including in urban areas, will not be able to use the Internet. IBM, in an experiment on cloud computing, developed a technology called the Spoken Web which allows people to create and navigate websites by voice, opening up a whole new world of opportunities for the vast number of illiterate people in India, and other developing countries. The technology creates Voice Sites that are analogous to Websites. So a URL is replaced by a phone number that users can dial, hyperlinks are replaced by voice options and the networking protocol–the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol–is replaced by the Hyper Speech Transfer Protocol.
This need was identified in India. Navi Radjou, executive director of the Centre for India & Global Business at Cambridge University, calls this Innovation. “In the next five years there will be a conversion in the market place as the western markets are going through austerity and recession, they will move away from want based consumption to need based consumption,” he predicts. This doesn’t mean you want cheap stuff but just better value out of it. And while the West may not have all the solutions, a lot of the “need” will be identified in the emerging markets, including India, and the product will then be developed globally. “A lot of innovation in India is demand driven,” he says.
Like the spoken web. Guruduth Banavar, chief technology officer at IBM’s Global Public Sector, launched the spoken web about 3.5 years ago as an exploratory research project. At the time he was based in India as the director of the research lab and he and his colleagues had been thinking about how to connect the next billion with the World Wide Web considering the fact that 80% of the world’s population doesn’t have a PC. But, they realized that nearly 4 billion people have mobile phones. This was also the time of the telecom revolution in India and other parts of the developing world, he recalls.
The idea is to let small entrepreneurs like plumbers and electricians, who wouldn’t typically have access to computers or know how to build websites, create voice sites. These are hosted on regular computer servers and can act as portals through which users can find out basic things like the price of a vegetable or how to get better yield from cows or if an electrician (whose voice site they have gone to) is available for a specific job on a specific day. But instead of typing in a web address, the user dials a phone number. Then, with a combination of voice commands and buttons on his cell phone, he navigates through a spoken list of options. In its most basic form a user can call up a plumber’s voice site, hear about the variety of jobs he can perform his working hours and his current open slots and book what he needs, by following the recorded prompts.
The project was started in India but is now being piloted in Africa and some Asean countries as well.