28 September 2010

Reflections on G-Kenya

[This post is by Reto Meier AKA @retomeier, who wrote the book on Android App development. — Tim Bray]

Recently I visited Kenya for the three-day G-Kenya event. I was there for two reasons:

  • To talk about Android and the emerging mobile opportunities for African developers.

  • To ask questions and find out more about the reality of mobiles and writing code from the people there.

Of the countries I’ve visited to talk about Android, nowhere have people had such a close connection to their mobile phones as in Africa. While most Kenyans own feature phones, those mobiles are already used as much more than simple phones. Mobile payments are already common, and cheap data plans mean that many people access the Internet exclusively through mobile handsets.

There were two Android announcements while I was in town: a new low-cost Android handset (the Huawei U8220), and Android Market access for Kenyans. I can’t wait to see the kind of apps that come from developers who live in an environment where mobile is so pervasive.

Day 1: Students

G-Kenya was set within the beautiful campus of the Strathmore Business School, so it was fitting that day one was addressed to students.

Of the three groups, the students where the most enthusiastic about Android. This was likely influenced by their confidence that by the time they graduate, modern smartphones in Africa will have become the norm.

I love talking to student developers — without the commercial pressures of finding customers or a monetization model — they're free to innovate on whatever technology platforms they think are interesting.

Day 2: Developers

Modern smartphones are not yet prevalent in Africa, so it wasn’t surprising that many of the developers are currently focusing on feature phones. That said, it was generally acknowledged that it was a question of when rather than if smartphones would come to dominate. The trick will be picking the right time to invest in Android so that they're ready to take advantage.

Plenty of developers believe that time is right now. It was a pleasure to meet the guys behind Ushahidi, creators of an Android app created to report and record incidents during the 2008 election violence. Since their launch they’ve expanded to offer a global platform for crowd-sourced news where timeliness is critical.

I love opportunity the Android Market delivers to developers like the idea of developers like Ushahidi and Little Fluffy Toys (of London Cycle Hire fame). An app the solves a problem for your local community can easily be expanded to offer solutions to similar problems across the world.

Developer focus in Kenya seemed to follow similar lines:

  • Create products and services targeted at local communities (such as the developers creating a distributed system to help health-care workers record medical information in the field.)

  • Build robust cloud-based services that provide access to users from any mobile platform.

  • Expand from feature phones to Android to incorporate features like GPS positioning, maps, and recording video and audio.

Day 3: Entrepreneurs and Marketers

No one was surprised to see a lot of the developers from the previous day return for entrepreneur day, and the apparent lack of Android questions from Day 2 was more than made up for on day 3; the “AppEngine Challenge” on Day 2 fielded a record 30 entries, so it seems everyone was working on their entries rather than asking questions!

I didn’t speak on Day 3, but spent all day fielding questions from eager mobile developers hoping to catch the Android wave as early innovators and first movers. That included a team who were working to provide real-time public transit tracking of Matatu via GPS and Android devices.

Reflections

It’s an exciting time to be a developer in Kenya. I regularly asked developers how long they thought it would take for Android devices to become common place. Many suggested if I came back this time next year I'd see a flood of Android devices. Even the more pessimistic predicted no more than 3 years.

As I traveled back towards Jomo Kenyatta International, listening to the radio offering a free Sony Ericsson X10 Mini to one lucky caller, the future didn’t seem very far away.