There is enough choice in the TPH Bookshop in downtown Nairobi to confuse even the regular customers. Books in both English and Swahili jostle for space on the display tables and the shelves are stacked with textbooks on every subject from semi-conductive systems to clinical dentistry. But bewildering as the variety might seem, there are at least plenty of titles to choose from.
Outside of the traffic of Kenya’s major cities, however, the choice can be more limited. “Getting the books out there is hard, it automatically means that people are going to be reading less,” says Sophie Kariuki, who works for a local publishing company. Sending books away from the city means transporting bulky boxes by road, which is rarely economical for publishers.
Going digital could help solve the distribution problem, but tablets have low penetration in Africa. In fact, with three quarters of the world’s 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions found in developing countries, it is the humble mobile phone that has the potential to become the world’s most popular e-reader.
A book app launched by Word reader, an education and literacy charity, is trying to access this potential. The app contains thousands of free books, from romance novels to mathematics textbooks. But rather than running on the latest smartphone, it is designed for the feature phones and overcrowded 2G networks of much of Sub-Saharan Africa. The app can be accessed through bINu, a free mobile software platform that gives users access to cloud-based internet services and apps.
Moving as much of the processing to the cloud’s servers, rather than on the phone, allows biNu to work at a speed which the company claims is ten times faster than regular mobile web browsers. After rendering graphics and text on the cloud, the data is sent back over the network as tiny images. Each image contains instructions of where it should go on the screen and the complete mosaic comes through to the phone as only one or two packets of data of up to one kilobyte each. Information is never sent twice, as the servers remember what has been sent before and provide only the new instructions needed to change the content on the screen. Sending the data as images also has the advantage of allowing the text to be displayed in any language, regardless of what the phone was programmed to handle.
Highly compressed data also keeps the price down for the user, a crucial concern for many people in developing countries. “Here there is bill fear not bill shock,” says Gour Lentell, CEO of biNu, who was born in Zimbabwe. “Everyone has pre-paid. So if you just put a dollar or two of credit on your SIM card, there is an inbuilt fear that if you open up the browser or start using data that airtime will disappear,” he adds. It is a similar concept to Snaptu, another data-efficient mobile platform that targeted the concerns of users of feature phone. Snaptu reached nearly 80 million users before being acquired by Facebook in 2011 and turned into Facebook for every phone. Since 2010, biNu has gained over 4 million monthly users of its own and its Worldreader app has now been installed on around 5 million mobile phones since coming out of beta in April.
The popularity of these projects is likely to increase as the number of internet-enabled phones continues to rise in Africa. Another immensely popular mobile platform launching a new book app is Mixit. The South African social network and instant messaging service already has 7.3 million active users a month. These users now also have access to Bookly and its virtual fiction library. As well as free classics from Project Gauteng, Bookly is teaming up with local publishers to release a range of South African novels.
But successful as these books apps are, there are publishers who argue that it is not enough to just put existing paper books into a digital format. Content can be tailored for the mobile phone in a way that actually encourages the user to keep reading. “People are still engaging with long-form reading on a smaller screen however there is lots of potential to create,” says Colin McElwee, co-founder of Worldreader. Plans are underway to publish more experimental content on the Worldreader app, with textbooks broken up into more manageable chunks and questions at the end of chapters so that students can earn credit for other books.
It follows the example of mobile educationalists who have been distributing original content using text messages for years. One such project is Mprep, which helps children in Kenya prepare for exams by texting quizzes to students based on what they have learned in class. The correct answers are sent back to the phone with an explanation and the pupils’ progress can even be tracked by the teacher.
“The interesting thing with this technology is using content in a different way, a way that is actually addressing the problem,” says Lafayette. Cloud computing technology can play a key role in helping publishers reach more people with books, but it does not automatically solve the more important problem of how to get those people to read more. As the reach gets bigger and the screens get smaller, mobile publishing might do more than just change the distribution route: it might even change the books themselves.