Friday, April 20, 2012

XLBrowser: Making Dumbphones Smarter With SMS Technology

XLBrowser: Making Dumbphones Smarter With SMS Technology:
Mobile technology has improved at an incredible rate over the past 20 years. In two decades we’ve gone from cumbersome monochromatic GSM handsets to pocket-sized touch-screen computers we can’t bear to leave the house without.
While the developed world is steadily moving away from what we now affectionately call “dumbphones”, for poorer nations this is not the case. Africa in particular is home to many people who do not have access to computers, instead relying on mobile phones to communicate. XLBrowser is just the tool for bringing the Internet to these antiquated devices – using SMS.

What Is XLBrowser?

XLBrowser is a J2ME application developed in Java that is designed to bring both localised and global online content to low-end mobile phones. The market for this type of application is huge, with only around 20% of global mobile users connecting via smartphones. Despite the global fascination with the next big thing – the next Apple announcement, battery life improvements or faster connection speeds – Mobile-XL, the company behind XLBrowser, is focusing on current technology.
In the world’s poorest countries there is often limited access to computers and the Internet, but there are a lot of old mobile phones. For many, they are the only form of online communication beyond visiting an Internet cafe, and Mobile-XL wanted to take advantage of that.
The name XLBrowser stretches the boundaries of what is commonly referred to as a browser. It is not actually possible to access the Internet as we currently know it using the app, instead XLBrowser delivers select services using SMS messages. This is how information is transferred to and from the device, and while there are more efficient ways of doing this now available, SMS messages are cheap (considerably more so than data) and only require plain old mobile signal.
The app provides access to a number of services including email and Facebook as well as localised content. If a user chooses to view a weather report then they are asked to enter their city and country, submit the request (which sends as SMS) before information is sent back, also in SMS form. This information is then displayed in the app with appropriate formatting. Mobile-XL claims it is even possible to add new services to the app via a silent SMS update.

What Does It Do?

XLBrowser is designed to deliver “apps” that have a global appeal alongside localised services that provide different functionality depending on location. Mobile-XL have already introduced pilot schemes in Kenya, Cameroon and Ghana and hope to launch in India and Brazil soon.
While there are tailored versions for the many different handsets that Mobile-XL supports, there is only one core version of the browser itself. Localisation settings can be changed in the app itself via the settings menu, removing the need for country-specific versions. In Kenya the service includes quick access to agricultural prices, something that is important to XLBrowser’s Kenyan users. Mobile-XL isn’t trying to bring the whole Internet to now defunct platforms, just certain parts of it.
In addition to localised services, XLBrowser also supports a decent range of standard online services. This includes email from the likes of Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo as well as Facebook support for reading updates, updating your status and messaging. There are news services, an instant messaging protocol called XL Connect, sports results and even games like Sudoku.
Location-based services include a dictionary, a tool for finance and world markets and even traffic reports, with all data sent and received via SMS.

How To Get It

While the use of such old and cumbersome technology might sound like a step in the wrong direction, Mobile-XL is in fact making excellent use of the infrastructure in their target markets.
Two years ago the company signed a deal with Nokia to begin embedding their Java app into handsets in certain parts of Africa. Now mobile phones are being sold and used in areas with little-to-no mobile Internet coverage in ways many wouldn’t have thought possible thanks to one of the earliest technologies to make it into cellular devices.
Luckily it’s also very easy to transfer the browser to an existing mobile phone. Users with some Internet coverage can visit from their handsets, choose a version and install the app. Those who don’t have Internet on their phones can download the app to a PC and transfer it via Bluetooth, USB cable or Infrared technology.


SMS has been used to keep cost down and maintain compatibility. It’s slow and cumbersome but if it was your only option – you’d use it, right?
If you’ve got an old dumbphone you keep for emergencies then why not consider installing XLBrowser for a rainy, Internet-less day. If you’ve well and truly moved on from dumbphones (i.e. you have backup smartphones now) then thank yourself lucky and consider the lengths that some have to go to in order to check Facebook or send an email.
Have you heard of XLBrowser before? What do you think of the idea? Have you ever used it? Let us know what you think in comments below.
Intro: SMS Message (Shutterstock)

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