What post-PC era?

Why ‘leapfrogging’ gets it wrong

Tech writers writing about Africa love to talk about leapfrogging. Last week, a blogger at Thomson Reuters published a post called “Learning from a Mobile Way of Life in Africa,” in which a Reuters exec approvingly called Sub-Saharan Africa “a great example of the post-PC era,” saying that cell phones have “leapfrogged” desktops and laptops around the continent. But is any country in Africa actually post-PC?

What little data there is suggests just the opposite: that Sub-saharan Africa is becoming more PC by the day. Computer sales have nearly doubled year upon year in Nigeria and outperformed the rest of the economy in South Africa, while traders from around the continent have kept the wholesalers in Dubai busier than ever.

No matter how versatile cell phones become, they are unlikely to replace the core uses of computers for millions of students, accountants, writers, business owners, bureaucrats, researchers, engineers, coders, designers, or people in hundreds of other professions who—like professionals in the US—would continue to find computers useful even when they already have a cell phone, a tablet, or two of each.

Something that gets lost in all the talk of leapfrogging technology in the developing world is that cell phones are still, fundamentally, a workaround. The bulk of cell-phone-enabled innovations coming out of African countries today don’t reflect a world where computers have become obsolete, but where computing is so useful that it becomes practical even on an incredibly rudimentary platform—like Google’s new service for email via SMS.

Take Slimtrader, a startup founded by the Nigerian-American entrepreneur Femi Akinde. It’s an e-commerce platform that relies exclusively on SMS, allowing sellers and buyers to conduct transactions ‘online’ using text messages. Or Nandimobile, a Ghanaian company that enables live customer service via text. Each of these offers a novel service, by way of cell phone, tailored for an environment where computers are scarce. And each will undoubtedly find a market even in places where computers are more widespread—where internet connections are slow and data costs are high, or simply in moments when the phone is the most convenient device at hand.

Recent studies in the US show that younger people are more and more likely to use their phones to replace computers, with half of 12-17 year olds using cell phones as their main means of going online. Partly, this is a reflection of a society whose every need and desire is increasingly tethered to the internet; it has become a caricature of modern life to say that young people carry their (internet-enabled) cell phones with them everywhere. But affordability is another major reason that both young people in the US and people in African countries have readier access to cell phones than to computers. It’s in this convergence that African developers have a real advantage: they are accustomed to developing products for a market where cell phones are the best, or only option.

This is why Nokia, Microsoft, Orange, ITU, and Siemens have all lined up to host “innovation” competitions for apps coming out of Africa: they offer the possibility of reading into the future, both of fast-growing economies in the developing world, and of markets closer to home, where computer and phone sales seem to be tapering off.

But to speak of leapfrogging and a post-PC era gets it wrong. Computers have not been leapfrogged, and for that matter, neither have roads, postal systems, or functional electrical grids. What we can hope for from African app designers is to come up with ideas that will improve that infrastructure steadily and efficiently, and continue to provide good workarounds in the mean time.

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