As soon as we solve the 6,000 languages problem

The following post is from Kas Kalba, President of Kalba International, Inc., a global telecom consultancy. It’s drawn largely from Kalba’s forthcoming book Mobiles We Don’t Know. In this post Kalba discusses three key obstacles impeding the proliferation of smartphones. To learn about how limited network coverage is hindering the utility of smartphones, check out CFI Fellow Leon Perlman’s recent report.    

Major languages by number of native speakers (click to enlarge)

When a highly reputable publication announces “Almost two-thirds of the human population is connected to the internet by smartphones,” it signals how loose our assumptions about technology adoption have become. This estimate, which implies roughly 5 billion users compared to the total global population of 7.5 billion, is not even close. The actual number is about 2 billion, when counting individual smartphone users—not the same as smartphones sold to date. So why is the smartphone still not in the hands of 5.5 billion potential users—or 4.5 billion if we discount a billion as under age?

If adoption of smartphones progresses at the same pace as the initial adoption of mobile phones, connecting 3 more billion people to smartphones could take 10 or more years. Even this rate would leave 2.5 billion of us without smartphones.

Based on Kalba International’s work in Africa, Asia and Latin America, we think there are three factors involved—the language gap, the income gap, and the recharging gap. This is in addition to extending internet coverage to many areas without it.

On language, we often think everyone speaks English—or else one of the other top global languages like Mandarin or Spanish—but the native speakers of these three languages add up to only 1.5 billion, many of whom don’t read or write. Yet 80 percent of internet sites are in one of the top 10 languages (about 50 percent of sites are in English), leaving a mismatch between content and ability to access and absorb it.

So how can smartphones accommodate our 6,000 languages—or at least the 200 or so (see graphic) with 10 million or more speakers?

Over time algorithms and oral interfaces can help solve the issue, as companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon have started to show.  What’s not clear is how rapidly the solutions will come. The current focus is on a limited number of languages, for example, leaving out all but one of Africa’s 2,000 languages. And it helps explain why music, photos and videos—not internet searches—are so popular among non-English speakers around the world. Also why less than 5 percent of non-English speakers in Africa have a smartphone, according to PEW Research.

A more obvious barrier to smartphone adoption is that more than two-thirds of us live on $10 or less per day. Mobiles, available for under $30 in some poor countries with prepaid airtime bought a few minutes at a time, are affordable for most people, especially if they give up cigarettes, beer or lipstick in the process. Smartphones, even when they fall to $50 or $60, are not as affordable, and so people often choose more affordable and more reliable feature phones. Affordability is even more limited for the roughly 3 billion living on under $5.00 per day.

This brings up recharging. About 1.2 billion of the world’s population lives off the power grid. Though this hasn’t shut off mobile adoption in mostly rural areas, it has slowed it down. Yet it’s one thing to ask a person to walk to the nearest town to recharge a phone once a week, and an entirely different thing to expect this every day or two, as smartphones require. New battery technologies and power-conserving approaches are promising but remain to be proven.

Meanwhile, the grid-based population grows each year though only minutely—about 15 million persons per year. On this basis it could take 80 years to fully close the recharging gap. Solar panels and services like M-KOPA in Kenya can help as well but so far they are diffusing more slowly than are extensions of the grid. This will hopefully change soon.

How else to speed things up? The short answer is adding free WiFi at the village level along with free recharging stations. Next, there’s lowering smartphone prices and related data charges. Plus the world needs to organize more oral apps in local languages. This is why today community radio is thriving in many rural areas of the world more than the smartphone is.

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