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Simplifying the cellphone (The Indian Express)

In December last year, a wing of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) published a study on Gujarat's rural community and how they use mobile phones. In an abridged report in Ice Age, a monthly newsletter of the Development and Educational Communication Unit (DECU) of ISRO, researcher Hansa Joshi wrote about "how mobile technology fulfils the communication requirements of people, its socio-economic and cultural impact on the society and further expectations from the technology".

The study, based on the responses of 1,384 people from villages, towns and cities across the state, threw up a number of interesting details. The report said: "In terms of exposure to media like newspaper, radio, TV, computer and Internet, we can say that mobile usage was the highest among all media in terms of access (78 per cent) and regular usage (99 per cent)".

It was also found that more than a third of all respondents "bought the mobile with an assumption that it will increase their income", and in the tribal belt, a handset is sometimes "family owned". The report added that for a "majority of mobile users, individual ownership gives them motivation for self-learning and the satisfaction of fulfillment of all their communication needs".

But popularity doesn't mean problem-free. It was found that about 19 per cent of mobile users faced acute problems in using certain features of the handsets. This may, however, change soon.

On March 9, IBM announced a collaborative research initiative with the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and Tokyo University's Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology to "explore an open, common user interface platform for mobile devices, to make them easier to use for the elderly, and illiterate or semi-illiterate populations in developing countries".

IBM will contribute the technology bit, and NID will contribute its experiences in designing interfaces and ethnography. The eventual software would then be made available as open source. Jignesh Khakhar of the NID's IT Design faculty, who will be in charge of the initiative from the NID front, said it was too early to talk about the project.

Nitendra Rajput, advisory researcher of IBM Research India and India lead for the Open Collaborative Research Programme, said the team will first identify the target groups and find out their needs and modes of interaction. For example, a farmer would need weather information, while migrant workers would want information on how to send money to their village. In fact, the ISRO report suggests that message box services be developed so that migrant workers can pass on important messages back home.

The needs will differ dramatically from group to group, Rajput said, and the challenge will be to find a platform that capable of hosting a number of applications. So is it going to a simpler, customisable smart-phone? Maybe, but Rajput says it will be different from any other customisable phone because the research will focus on people with special needs, like semi-literate, illiterate and elderly people. There might be room for the video-based, sound-based and text-based modalities to converge. But then, he concedes, it is difficult to talk about what will eventually come out of the exercise, which hasn't even begun yet.

Rajput has had experience in this field: he was one of the researchers behind IBM's Voikiosk, a kiosk meant to be placed in villages that disseminates information that is relevant locally. "When you listen to a voice from the kiosk, that too in your own language, it becomes much more relevant," he says, comparing it to sitting in front of a computer looking up generic information on the Web. Rajput estimates that it will take four to five months of research before the actual development of the product can start. Once finalised, the software will be made available open-source, and businesses or governments that are interested can use it, with NID and IBM lending support. It will take about two years to achieve this, he says.

The Indian Express
March 14, 2010