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Android Mobile Phone Proliferation is Good for African ICT Even if it Fragments Development

By Thad Kerosky on September 8, 2010

The tech publication Ars Technica warned recently that Android’s proliferation in China might not lift Google’s image in East Asia–many parties there are vivisecting it into a clone called OPhone.

I want to take the other side on this development: As the freely available and high quality mobile operating system becomes workable on most phones, the Chinese knock-off phones are now much more likely to be using Android/OPhone. It is the low-hanging fruit option. We should celebrate that! Those knock off phones are the present reality of many targetable markets today, including East Africa’s. Android fragmentation is replacing complete fragmentation.

blackvodapod.jpgA Chinese-make fake blackberry

Right now, those same high-end knock-off N0kia/B1ackb3rry phones are making their way into the East African dukas. They are generally using obscure operating systems (OS) soldered together using half-hardcoded bitmaps and quirky keyboards made for Chinese. They are utterly “fragmented” and impossible to code for. As a programmer, sometimes I wonder at the question: who were the lucky anonymous code monkey team that was given such a job: make this phone work (mostly).

You can just imagine the generation of Chinese Operating System (OS) programmers cutting their teeth, becoming experienced by solving the OS problems again and again for every new knock-off phone. But now, consider how easy Android is to use on arbitrary mobile hardware: one coder, in a month or so of bedroom hacking was able to bring it onto the iPhone. Just by that feat, it seems obvious that Android/OPhone is bound for the knock-offs in some substantial form.

The mobile computing revolution is happening already in rural Tanzania, in some sense. Every few days, a new teacher colleague of mine would come in with slick-looking phone with the requisite multiple SIM card support and big touch screen, but their phones didn’t enable anything really new. There were no apps, no stable browser. No way to make apps for that.

I visited AppfricaLabs in late 2008 and talked with Ugandan @VicMiclovich about their work developing locally relevant apps for Nokia, Java midlets, and various other prevalent phone dev targets. Still, at the end of the discussion we had to admit that, for the moment, there was very limited impact opportunity in the market, outside of savvy tech users because of this unprogrammable Fake-OS problem. Maybe the OPhone can be a second chance?

Returning to one of the thread in the original article, though the Google Android App Store might not be relevant to the hundreds of millions of users in China, it may be more useful than the OPhone Store to the unmentioned millions of users of these phones as they trickle out into other Asian and African markets, if the store can be added by vendors without much trouble. The common foundation offers new possibilities.

While on the subject, the originally noted article was a follow up to a another Ars Technica report several months ago on Android Fragmentation. It was wisely noted there that the catchy term should be used careful. It can refer to any of the panoply of versions, devices, OS repackagings, or device designers of Android. It has been thrown around a lot and is pretty beat up:

“Because it means everything, it actually means nothing, so the term [fragmentation] is useless,” he wrote in a blog entry. “Stories on ‘fragmentation’ are dramatic and they drive traffic to pundits’ blogs, but they have little to do with reality. ‘Fragmentation’ is a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers. Yawn.&#8221

We should invite Android Fragmentation over the status quo, obscure, impossible to develop-for custom OSs in today’s knock-off phones. It is something tactile to code for and it extends the audience to share digital services with.


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Written by
I am a professional software geek, a Returned ICT Peace Corps Volunteer who has trained teachers and administrated thin client systems in rural Tanzania from 2007 through late 2009. More generally I am an East Africa tech development fan. I greatly enjoy crafting software and IT solutions that solve real problems.
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3 Comments to “Android Mobile Phone Proliferation is Good for African ICT Even if it Fragments Development”

  1. Matt Berg says:

    Can’t wait to see the Chinese knockoffs running Android. If you’ve ever seen the OS on the knockoffs now you’d understand.

  2. Apple says:

    The mobile computing revolution is changing everyday, but Chinese is not a old way in thie aspect .

  3. Brain says:

    Well, they are smart enough to copy the formula of any of device but still there may exist some problem in-terms of quality and reliability. Though available at cheap price I will definitely go for any standard company as many of those device don’t have IQ numbers.

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