To connect the unconnected, technology giants Google and Facebook are trying to make basic mobile internet services free in many countries. Pakistani entrepreneur Hassan Baig has gone one step further. He is developing a solution to make internet accessible for those who have never experienced it.
For every internet user, there are two people who don’t use it at all, according to Baig, who runs ClubInternet, a ‘connecting the unconnected’ startup based out of Islamabad. There are, thus, approximately 4.3 billion people in the world who are yet to experience the internet.
To bring these people online, Google and Facebook have launched their own initiatives Android One and
Internet.org, respectively, to make internet affordable for them. Facebook, for example, has just launched the Internet.org project in six Indian states to provide citizens with free mobile internet services.
Baig, however, believes these initiatives alone won’t be sufficient to connect everyone, for they are geared towards making the internet and digital technology only more affordable.
By contrast, almost all of the unconnected don’t know how to use it in the first place, he says. “These people have no prior exposure to the internet and are less likely to use it even if given for free.”
Explaining the idea further, the Duke University graduate said that from operating system to user interface, all smartphones have been designed for those who already have had some exposure to the internet and are familiar with QWERTY keyboards, the model used in smartphones.
But none of the four billion plus people are familiar with these concepts, the entrepreneur says, adding that even the mobile phone experience of many is limited to basic feature phones with numeric keypads. “These people mostly can’t tell what the X at the top-right of the screen does, or what ‘sign up’ means, or what a username and password are, or that cancel buttons are red or gray, or why should one even use the internet in the first place.”
The LUMS alumnus not only highlighted this issue but also proved it through extensive field tests which were conducted in Pakistan but are applicable anywhere in the world. This also prompted him to come up with a solution to fill this mental gap.
“We are developing technology that can help teach inexperienced internet users how basic internet services work; we are working on improving the internet’s user experience (UX) layer for the unconnected,” Baig said, referring to his solution, which “intelligently teaches users how the internet service they are trying to surf works through audio-video cues, gamification, and a dose of machine learning”.
Baig’s idea has already sparked interest in the tech world after he got coverage on CNN and TechCrunch. The latter is the world’s leading technology blog.
In an interview with CNN, Baig is seen sharing his findings from multiple usability tests, whereby the unconnected or newly connected people were given smartphones and tablets and asked to do basic tasks, such as navigating between pages or apps, surfing the internet and attending Viber calls. Baig and his team recorded these tests, which were conducted with the support of local technology incubator Plan9 and Microsoft. The videos show subjects (users) clearly struggling to understand when to swipe, tap, double tap or pinch, making them reluctant to switch to smart devices. Not being able to do what they wanted while using the internet was one of the top concerns among the unconnected, according to Baig.
Baig hopes to launch the product in Pakistan by end of March 2015, and internationally in six months. Mozilla’s team has reached out to him for their Firefox operating system platform, while local telecom operators are onboard to roll out the solution on upcoming affordable smartphones, he said.
Though the product aims to create internet demand among the unconnected, Baig believes there should be a smartphone specifically meant for these people, with its very own OS. “This is something we are keen on doing in future.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2015.