Steve Vosloo
Steve Vosloo

SMS or data services for Google?

I recently had a conversation with some people at Google about mobile applications for sub-Saharan Africa. Two key issues emerged: i) South Africa is ahead of the pack in terms of cellphone adoption, coverage and services, and ii) the lowest common denominator is still SMS.

If Google, or anyone else who wants to seriously play in the mobile space, only goes for SMS it reaches the widest audience, but is limited in features and uptake because of the high costs of messaging. (Google, MTN Uganda and the Grameen Foundation recently launched Google SMS in Uganda, a bundle of mobile services that allow a broad base of users to access content on a range of topics.)

On the other hand, if it places its bets on data services, it might be too far ahead of the curve for the whole region and lose out on the existing user base.

In the spirit of the excellent blog posts What Google Should do in Africa, I asked a few Twitterers who are involved in mobile work in sub-Saharan Africa this question:

Google mobile strategy in sub-Saharan Africa: SMS-based only content services or include GPRS/data ones too? (Think scalability)

This is how they responded:

A comprehensive, meaningful mobile strategy has to include data services. There is risk in focusing on what is rather than what can be. (andi_friedman)

Both. Sms only = foolish. Apps using data are growing sharply worldwide incl dev countries. Sms and apps using ussd/gprs…imho :-) (katrinskaya) Also: One more thing: with only 10% of phones worldwide smart phones, we need apps that work on simple phone. And USSD 0 much cheaper than sms

Google believes that everything will be done in the browser. They are definitely going GPRS, but African conditions mean SMS is step 1. (whiteafrican)

SMS — pros (everyone) , GPRS/Data – Pros (Cheaper/Many more services/potential etc..) ==> Def Include data (roballen101)

It varies country-by-country. What’s big in Uganda is not necessarily big in SA. Strategy needs to include the “mobile application Internet” (art2gee)

Include GPRS/Data as an option too — of course! Also consider USSD which is cheaper than SMS and well understood. (DaveDuarte)

Include data: Based on studies I’m conducting, GPRS/data is catching up in africa, and ignoring this will be a big mistake (shikohtwit)

GPRS too. (ict4d)

U have to inlcude data — cheaper (maggiev)

Both (vincent_maher)

Google: sms is a good base, prepare for gprs but stop this premium service, the content is limited and they charge too much (hajovanbeijma) Also: Their business model gives all the revenues to MTN, I am not foreseeing a change in Uganda in the next couple of years as MTN invested

Massive caveat: this is a tiny, unrepresentative sample of practitioners … but still, a picture begins to emerge. (In the absence of good, detailed data about mobile uptake, handsets and consumer spend on their mobile communications, one has to begin to conduct these small interviews and through triangulation of information sources come to your own strategy.)

I certainly think that both SMS and data services are essential, leaning more to the latter. The youth are chatting on their cellphones. It will be a big mistake to ignore this emerging “middle class” of users by only recognising the huge mass market of low-end phone users and the tiny elite of smart phone users.