Thursday, May 21, 2009

Quid Pro Quo

I was at the NetHope Summit on the Microsoft campus in Redmond this week. On Monday I was part of a panel of nonprofit CIOs. Our audience was Microsoft managers. It was quid pro quo time. We were talking about the technology challenges of working in the most infrastructure challenged places in the world and the technology authors were listening.

During the Q&A one of the Microsoft exec's talked about his recent experience with small businesses in the Philippines. In emerging countries, the value proposition is often based on three things: access, simplicity and radical pricing. If small businesses in the emerging world see how they can improve their business and make a short-term profit from technology, they will buy it.

It was appropriate for the conversation, then, when the question was posed about how we would advise Microsoft. I drew from this example and cited four things we've learned from our field work as an international nonprofit:

1. A Disconnected Internet—Applications need to work well in a "sometimes connected" environment. The always-on, broadband Internet is something we take for granted in the West. It is not the reality in much of the world; where it is available, it is not affordable for most people.

My favorite example of this is the Internet Motoman Network in Cambodia[1]. This project provides Internet access for solar-powered telemedicine clinics and others. The network uses a WiFi and storage unit on the back Honda motorcycles to delivery email to and from the provincial capital. There a donated satellite dish provides the connection to the Internet. When I described this “disconnected Internet” to a web 2.0 company, they looked at me as if I had two heads.

Microsoft is well-positioned for this world, having relevant roots in the Outlook client and Groove architectures. Leveraging this across the technology stack may be the operating model for the sometimes-connected user.

2. Brutal simplicity—Technology in emerging countries needs to run without the benefit of technology people to operate and maintain it. This includes setup and maintenance. To borrow a page from Garrison Keillor, technology needs to work for English majors.

One of the lessons of disruptive innovation studies[2] is that good enough technology often beats established technology. The cell phone is a primary example; it still does not measure up to AT&T standards for quality landlines. The Internet Village Motoman Network, above, is another example.

Another point is that the further from urban centers, the less available are IT resources in the field. For international nonprofits, if we have the technical people in the field, we often can’t retain them. Scarce resources are snapped up by companies with the greatest buying power. We need technology that decreases demand on skilled IT labor.

3. Price on demand—Emerging countries cannot afford software licenses and maintenance fees. Rentable models, like Software as a Service (SaaS), make more sense. Free components make even more sense.

My favorite example for this is the “missed call feature” of cell phones in India. Cell phone users only pay for completed calls. Calling a cell phone and hanging up produces a “missed call” notice on the recipients phone, This ends up being a very useful method of presence management, letting people know you are at a predetermined location, for example. I’m told it’s one of the widest uses of cell phones in India. And it’s free. Would we have thought of this in the west?

4. Run-less infrastructure—Since corporations spend five times more on IT per employee than NGOs, it’s obvious that nonprofits need to get out of the infrastructure business in order to leverage IT more for mission-moving applications like ICT4D. The lesson from NGO experience is that the IT agenda needs to move up the strategy pyramid, from the infrastructure-focused “keep the lights on” technology, to technology that impacts beneficiaries[3]. The same is likely true for most businesses—especially the small ones—in the emerging world. Small businesses can't get in the infrastructure business. Business applications will need to be “server-free.”

The bottom line is that technology in emerging countries will need to run without the always-on Internet, without the IT professional, without the high prices and without the servers.


[1] See the related article to the Design for the Other 90% at
[2] See Clay Christensen’s, The Innovators Dilemma, Collins Business, 2003.
[3] See the slide deck for my Oct-08 NetHope Chairman’s report on my presentations page, here:

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