PopTech Editions II: Nigel Waller's Movirtu is micro-izing the mobile phone

Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting a piece from Movirtu founder and 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Nigel Waller.

I wanted to see firsthand who owned cell phones and who did not. It was 2006 and I was near the border of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Driving between villages with my two local guides, pushing further north, at first it was hard to find people without phones. To my untrained eye, there was little difference between a village housing people earning $2 a day and those earning $1.25 a day. Once I became aware of that, I asked the villagers directly about their earnings. I was quickly able to map the poorer villages and found that mobile phone ownership levels dropped once the person’s earnings went below $2 a day. If you’re earning $2 a day, a $25 handset is 10 months savings for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who live below the poverty line. There seemed to be a huge opportunity, not only for a low-cost mobile phone, but also an opportunity to make a difference for these people without access.

Because I’d been involved in the mobile phone industry since its birth in the late 80s, I immediately started thinking about designing a low-cost handset.

After reading about the endeavors of Motorola and other handset vendors in that space and the very low product margins they had to endure I quickly backed off. Village pay phones was another model I investigated, but without a capability for users to have their own phone number and keep private calls and messages, the pay phones only provided a limited outbound calling service. Let’s create a pay phone with an external SIM card slot‚ I thought, but then after a little research, I understood the prices of such devices would be well over $700 a piece.

The scope of this opportunity kept churning in the back of my mind. Two years later I had the spark! My oversight was taking the product I knew, the mobile phone, and trying to find a way to make it cheaper. What I needed to do was rethink a new technical solution. Linking the mobile phone number to the handset was the mistake. Why not put the identity in the cloud and allow people to log in and log out of any shared or public device that was nearby, just like accessing your email through a web browser? I would use standard signaling technology that was available on any basic handset to provide the "Internet link" and access a phone in the cloud that would cost the user 20c a pop, instead of $25. I had managed to turn the problem on its head, and micro-ize the mobile phone.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: Movirtu

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