Published on SciDev.Net on 13 June 2012
Muslim countries need forward-looking policies to take advantage of the opportunities offered by mobile technology, says Athar Osama.
The mobile phone is recognised across the world as one of the greatest enabling technologies of modern times. The exponential growth in its penetration and accessibility has defied all expectations — the UN agency International Telecommunications Union estimates that there were more than 5.98 billion mobile phones in use around the world in 2011, corresponding to about 86 per cent of the world’s population. 
The almost universal access to mobile phones and other mobile devices, coupled with falling prices, has opened up new avenues for development. For the poorest of the poor in the Islamic world — many of whom live in Africa and South Asia — the mobile phone could be the only technology revolution to touch their lives on a sustained basis.
A world of possibilities
The mobile phone is so important because it acts as a platform technology to enable a number of other activities. This presents many opportunities, just as television, which was launched as an entertainment device, soon showed promise as an educational tool, and the Internet, which began as an educational tool, was soon used for entertainment and commerce.
But mobile phones succeed where the Internet and the television failed to go: in the farthest corners of the world, where electricity is scarce and Internet connectivity expensive.
The low cost and ease of use of mobile technologies significantly enhance their impact. As prices of devices and connections have fallen dramatically over the years, mobile phones have become a common sight in even the poorest places.
As a technology platform, mobile telephony can deliver social value in banking, public services, education and healthcare, for example. In some countries in the Islamic world, it also contributes directly to economic prosperity.
Route to prosperity
Mobile gaming and the development of applications (‘apps’), an emerging multibillion-dollar industry, present the most exciting prospects for developing countries to establish a foothold in the global information technology (IT) value chain.
First, becoming a mobile entrepreneur does not require the kind of upfront investment needed to create a more elaborate IT business. Being a new industry, experience and a proven track record do not carry as much a premium as in other businesses.
Second, the timeframe for developing a mobile game or app is short enough to allow entrepreneurs to enter the market without putting too much at stake.
Third, and most important, the mobile industry provides a welcome escape from the domestic market — many app stores (of which Apple’s App Store is the most visible) allow a game designer in a developing country to sell directly to the affluent West.
Several countries in the Islamic world have explicitly sought to capitalise on this opportunity by developing policy — for example through the SeedStartup incubator in Dubai and AppsArabia in Abu Dhabi, and similar initiatives in Jordan and elsewhere. In others, governments are catching up after clusters of mobile entrepreneurs emerged organically, such as the emerging mobile and gaming industry in Lahore, Pakistan.
Although these ventures are mostly focused on foreign markets, they will have an increasing impact on the domestic market. They are already affecting the entrepreneurial culture of these societies — mobile technology, because of its low barriers to entry and quick product development cycle, has become the primary means for providing a taste of entrepreneurship to the young.
A for-profit after-school programme in Pakistan promises to teach iPad and iPhone programming to school children. And mobile technology incubators are being planned around the Islamic world, including one (mLab South Asia) championed by the World Bank in Lahore, Islamabad.
Beyond the potential economic benefits, mobile technology may bring an even larger indirect benefit to society through applications in electronic government (e-government), mobile money, e-health and e-learning. Here there is less certainty about the possible impact and routes to success — but rather than a drawback, this is an opportunity for enlightened and forward-looking government policy to make a difference.
Mobile money and banking, which enables financial inclusion in the developing world, is a particularly exciting development. A recent World Economic Forum report  identified several Islamic countries — notably Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia — as being in a high state of readiness to embrace the opportunity afforded by mobile money and banking. Pakistan’s Easypaisa initiative is widely seen as one of the leaders in this area.
But realising the full potential of this application will require an understanding of the social dimensions of the technology — how people interact with it, what they use it for, and how best to incentivise them to use it.
For instance, as smart-phones and tablets become ubiquitous and wireless Internet becomes cheaper, mobiles will become fully loaded entertainment devices. Governments may need to step in to correct market failures, such as problems with educational, local language or culturally sensitive content.
Above all, in virtually all social applications of mobile telephony, the ability to rapidly experiment, evaluate and scale up is important for success. This requires a change in policy mind-set to put more of a premium on evaluation, learning and acknowledging failure.
A compelling set of market and technology forces will play an important role, but conscious and careful use of policy is critical to help steer developing Islamic countries towards a mobile-technology-enabled future.
Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy consultant. He is the founder and CEO of Technomics International Ltd, a UK-based international technology policy consulting firm, and founder of Muslim-Science.com.
 Key Global Telecom Indicators for the World Telecommunication Service Sector (ITU, 2011)
 World Economic Forum. The Mobile Financial Services Development Report 2011 [6.98MB] (World Economic Forum, 2011)