What does local content have to do with low-bandwidth applications?
High bandwidth access expands worldwide, finally in Africa too, but in many places the connectivity does not allow for an easy Internet usability, let alone the use of many tools for publishing own content and interacting easily with other users. Aside from many other challenges, one important to remark is the lack of low bandwidth application. This might be one of the reasons of why particular localization of many languages is progressing slowly. More importantly, the need for high bandwidth access for most current websites creates new divides.
- Checking up a profile on Facebook or at least access the log in page, which has alone almost 800kb! In a cybercafe, where you have to pay fees per minute, it may take up to 3 minutes with a dial up modem connection.
- Video or audio upload is almost impossible with a low bandwidth connection and can cost you a lot when your tariff is measured in volume instead of time.
- This blog is based on Wordpress, which is a great open source tool, but unfortunately not made for a dial up connections. If you want to publish a new post on Wordpress (2.7.1), you have to download over 750kb first.
Unfortunately even the free and open source community has little activity around low bandwidth solutions.
Where are the low bandwidth solutions? One really great initiative is Maneno, which not only tries to provide a low bandwidth blogging solution in Africa, but also focuses on offering multilingual options emphasising on various African languages such as Bamanankan and Swahili, beside French, English, Arabic and Portuguese. I got in contact with Maneno recently and their team ensured me that their system is designed as low as 13 kb without images and 33 kb including images.
Another one is Dgroups, a community platform based on emails. I am currently working on a project for IICD, which has over 50.000 members worldwide. Dgroups has just been newly launched and it now offers the administration of groups solely by email.
Twitter can make a difference as it lets you send and receive messages via mobile phone. But, unfortunately, Twitter gave up its free SMS service a while ago. I asked one of the Twitter founders, Jack Dorsey, at the e-stats conference when the free service is coming back, to which he replied 'on mid year.' This leaves the question, 'what can be said in 140 characters?' Quite a lot when you look at the Mobile Voices project just featured by the Netsquared N2Y2 challenge.
But one thing is for sure, just because you only have low bandwidth connection, does not mean you want to see dull, text based websites. There are various ways to make websites look appealing and still reduce the data size considerable. Aptivate has excellent Web Design Guidelines for Low Bandwidth.
What is the difference with mobile phones? Low-bandwidth is a big topic for mobile phones as 3G is not everywhere available; in Africa it is only available in big cities. In many cases all information exchange is limited to SMS exchange solutions. There are different solutions that need to deal with the heavy loaded web. One such is the Opera mini browser, which tries to compress data as much as possible, compressing up to 90% according to a presentation at the W3C Maputo meeting.
There was an interesting discussion on the KM4DEV mailing list and here is a summary of key points.
Jonathan Goshier has a great and critical blog post around this topic and emphasis the importance of local services: Web 2.0 Services Shutting Out Developing Countries