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Google’s Android: About time mobile service providers woke up

My recent mobile internet access experiences with MTN remind me of the internet in South Africa circa 1996: download speeds can barely handle text pages, access can bankrupt you, browsers can’t display pages correctly and my phone is desperately seeking a “blue screen of death” alternative to just plain freeze-reboot.

I recently read that both Vodacom and MTN have renewed vigour for mobile internet service provider strategies as they seek to grow the contribution of data (including internet connectivity) to revenues. Vodacom currently earn 13% of its revenue from data, and MTN 9%.

In the same article, MTN disclosed that it has 4,5-million active data subscribers. That’s many people who must be as frustrated as I am with MTN’s mobile internet offering. I am not at all surprised that despite our relatively high cellphone penetration, mobile web usage is not common in South Africa.

I have a large-screen smart phone, a Nokia E61i running on Symbian, and an MTN contract SIM and I have tried for some time now to embrace the future of the mobile internet with little success:

  • MTN has bundled a pre-installed, no-name web browser with this phone, which makes MTNLoaded my home page. This browser would make Mosaic look like technology from an advanced alien civilisation. I can’t easily uninstall it, and I can’t change its status as default browser.
  • I’ve installed Opera Mini, apparently the best Symbian web browser available, but it freezes up when I preview technology newsletters in Gmail and I have to reboot the phone. I can’t set it as the default web browser on the phone.
  • I can’t view the contents of Google Reader (my RSS reader): it just hangs after I log on.
  • The Google Mail Application doesn’t work correctly: HTML links are not recognised and cannot be followed. I have to view Gmail in Opera Mini at so that the links work, but then I don’t have the Gmail application menus.
  • I paid almost R3 000 for a prepaid MTN data card (essentially a bare-bones 3G phone) for my laptop, but most business people are convinced that they rather need to sign a 24-month data contract and end up paying many times that amount. I buy data bundles (for example, 1GB or 500MB) when I’m out of town and I’m pretty confident that people with the data contracts and ADSL at home are losing out if you compare their usage to their paid allocation.
  • If I buy a data bundle through MTN, it expires whatever is left of it after one month, for no good reason.
  • If I purchase a data bundle through MTN and I use it up within the one-month period, I can’t buy another bundle until that one-month period has expired — I revert to paying full price per MB, which is many multiples higher than the bundle price. If it looks like price gouging and it walks like price gouging, then …
  • Almost any cellphone can be used as a data card for laptop internet access once configured correctly (3G-compatible phones offer quicker transfer speeds than those that are only GPRS-compatible), and I would venture that most business users who have data cards also have smart phones compliments of their business contracts. I haven’t seen MTN make an effort to get business people to use their phones instead of a data card for laptop internet access.
  • The mobile service providers (MSPs) live in a strange world where they believe that they can set up “walled gardens” that enable them, more or less, to control your mobile internet experience, which they believe maximises their revenue from the experience. The handset makers and mobile operating system providers oblige, because the MSPs are the customers of the handset makers, not you.

    The most unfortunate assumption that the MSPs make is that you will become accustomed to the inferior quality of the experience compared with the computer-accessed internet. What they don’t realise is that the earliest adopters influence adoption by the masses, and these users have already become accustomed to the flexibility and services available to them through computer-based internet access.

    The mobile internet experience doesn’t compare, so people like me don’t take it seriously. The next time that someone asks an early adopter like me how they can learn more about the internet, I am not going to recommend the mobile web as a starting point — and so adoption slows.

    And then, on November 5, the mobile web looked like it could become a much nicer place. Google announced Android, a mobile operating system, middleware, a user-friendly interface and applications as well as the Open Handset Alliance, a multinational alliance of 34 companies that will work on developing applications on the Android platform.

    The aim of the alliance handset makers and MSPs will be to develop more user-friendly services and devices that help bring more of the internet’s functionality on to mobile devices. By using an open model, alliance partners hope that by scaling the development, advanced functionality will be included in less expensive mobile devices, offering more compelling and rich internet services with more user-friendly interfaces.

    Well, bully for the rest of the world — they’re going to have real internet-enabled mobiles phones from mid-2008 when the first Android-powered handsets are scheduled to be released, irrespective of whether they have an Android-powered phone.

    The simple fact that Android and the Open Handset Alliance now exist will force the Verizons, AT&Ts, Vodafone/Vodacoms and MTNs (who are not alliance members) to open up their Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems. Unfortunately, the best we can hope for in South Africa is that by 2009 Cell C or Virgin Mobile start supplying phones that run on Android, forcing the duopoly that is MTN and Vodacom to open up our mobile web gradually.

    Mobile internet access holds so much promise in South Africa, but it can’t fulfil on that promise until it actually works and can do more than just enable MXit, or provide us with ring tones, Java games and pictures of half-naked women.