The Internet is different when it is 2.5 inches wide

Microsoft Research India has released a fascinating article about the use of mobile internet by people who have never accessed the internet before.

A team led by Microsoft’s Jonathan Donner (@jcdonner) taught eight women in South Africa how to access the internet on mobile phones that they already owned, and then checked in with them over six months.

Here are a few quick highlights from the report:

  • For most people currently accessing the internet on mobile devices, it is as a complement to their other means of accessing the internet. Little is known right now about how using the internet changes when people are only accessing it via a mobile device.
  • “Some estimate that there are more active users of the mobile Internet in South Africa than there are traditional Internet users”
  • -“the Internet does not begin and end with the browser, and downloadable applications—apps—like MXit [an instant messaging app] and the operators’ premium content can draw on Internet data without being Internet experiences in the eyes of users”

That last point I find particularly interesting, and it makes me wonder which operating system (if any) will come to dominate mobile internet-capable phones.

Researchers initially had trouble finding women to participate in the study: “Many women we approached were unaware of the mobile Internet or found it too complicated. Others reported relying on brothers, husbands, and sons to use it for them.”

And the women they found didn’t have a real understanding of what the internet was, but there was a clear sense of the potential that it held. It is especially clear in this quote from a woman named Anne, a mother of two (pregnant with her third child) who worked at an NGO:

Here they give me R800 (US$90) per fortnight, and sometimes even that I am not assured as it depends on the orders that they get, there I have to buy food, pay 200 for crèche and give my husband some money to at least have something in his pocket. I still need money to go to the clinic (prenatal care) and buy things for the baby. I just want something that will pay me more than R2000 (US$230) a month, that will be enough. Do you think this Internet can help? They say it can help and I am willing to try.

Int. Journal of Communication – Exploring Mobile-only Internet Use (via Experientia)

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