Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Pauper’s Gate


In my first post on this blog, I talked about technology leapfrogging. This is a process where a society bypasses a technology and adopts its more modern replacement. In Nigeria for instance, most people never had landline phones and have mobile phones. The US on the other hand, is still very much a landline culture. So as far as basic telephony is concerned, we are more advanced than the US.

Now one other technology where we have the potential to leapfrog again is the mobile internet. The first version of the mobile internet we have in Nigeria is internet access on laptops. With PCMCIA cards, USB dongles and mobile phone tethering internet solutions laptops can be can be taken anywhere in the coverage area. However the real mobile internet, internet over handheld devices, mainly mobile phones, is on the rise. Recently, Opera, providers of a popular mobile web-browser called Opera Mini installed on many Nokia phones and available for download to other devices, shows Nigerian usage has grown to number 9 in the list of their top 10 nations where the browser is used in the world and number 2 in Africa.


So there is tremendous growth opportunity for the mobile internet in Nigeria. However as great as this is, there are some obstacles that I see for this. First is cost. Mobile internet access is expensive. I have looked closely at the prices for MTN and Zain and both their offerings require significant upfront payment or high incremental costs. In fact using the lowest common denominator, their per kilobyte service is 15k. Assuming a conservative usage of 1GB of data per month, this becomes about N150,000.00. Unsupportable. For internet access on your phone from MTN one of their customer service persons insists this is the only pricing available for phone internet usage, though their website seems to suggest that their N10,000.00 per month for 3GB is available on their phones. Zain has better pricing, but the upshot is you get very little internet for your buck. Now if the Nigerian Communications Commission weighs in on this, we may see a drop in tariffs like we saw with voice tariffs over the years (I should mention that you get a better deal if you sign up for a Blackberry service). The point is that mobile internet access is still a pretty expensive proposition for most Nigerians from the point of usage costs. In addition, it is also expensive from a device perspective. the devices that give you the best internet experiences are also the most expensive devices – and they tend to be the less robust devices making their lifespans shorter. Another barrier to entry in my opinion is education. You don’t necessarily need a high school diploma to use the internet, but it does require a fair amount of literacy to use with any real depth.

However, one technology that is available to every single mobile phone user in Nigeria is the short Message Service – SMS, and SMS is the “pauper’s gate” that gives everyone access to the hottest internet services in the world right now.

image The internet giant, Google, recently unveiled its strategy for Africa. These are centred around a set of three services (for now) that are accessed via SMS. They include Google SMS Tips, Google SMS Search which MTN unveiled some weeks ago,  and Google Trader. Tips is interesting as it appears to be more of a social service tool as it currently is used to locate clinics, access information on health and provides agriculturally relevant information such as weather and pest management. Trader is the most compelling service because it enables you search for items to buy and also to post an item for sale. The potential of that alone is pretty significant. Currently, however, other than the Search tool, the suite is currently only available in Uganda.

This brings the power of internet to everyone who can get access to a mobile phone and it isn’t just Google either. Various popular tools allow updates via SMS. These include Facebook and Twitter which sadly do not yet provide their SMS services to Nigeria. Nigerian social network, Legwork.com.ng however does provide SMS updates for their services. Apart from these services that are tied to well-known websites, SMS has long been used a mechanism for promotions (at inflated prices) and the mobile phone services have had various “value added services” accessible by SMS. The question is will these services become popular? I tested Google SMS. Not bad. Problem is it doesn’t fit my browsing habits. A test using “news Iran” gets me a news item. With the Web, I get multiple results and I can select the one I want. Of course, there is no chance of pictures or other media. Still for a vast majority of Nigerians, might it be enough at the price – ten naira per SMS? I don’t know. It would be interesting to follow the Ugandan experiment to see how it goes.

SMS is the great opportunity to bring the principal benefits of the internet - information search and ecommerce to the ordinary Nigerian at a very low price of entry. The Google service isn’t fully available in Nigeria – yet, but there is opportunity for any number of entrepreneurs to bring new products to the market or better still make SMS an add-on service to a fuller web-based offering like Legwork.com.ng is doing. I can imagine Iya Alata doing offering an ecommerce service via her mobile phone.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fly :Update

I was finally able to test the full functionality of www.1SpotSearch.com site, after yesterday’s service outage. Once you enter your requirements, it lists the flights available to you from different airlines. Then (and this is where it gets even cooler) you select the flights you want, click book flight and it takes you to the airline’s website at a point where you just need to provide your personal details and complete the transaction.

It also appears that the only airlines available are Arik, Aero and Virgin. While, in my opinion, they are currently the top airlines in the country, they don’t cover all routes, so it would be good for other airlines to be represented.

All in all, this is a great effort and it raises the bar for our local web entrepreneurs. I had mentioned in my initial review on this that it would be cool if you could complete the whole transaction on the 1SpotSearch.com itself, but the developer tells me in a blog comment that he doesn’t plan on going that far. Still, Kudos are very much deserved.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I’d really rather not do product reviews. A friend asked me to do a review of his site, but I turned him down – even though during my tenth post I listed product reviews as one of the things I would do. I would rather cover some specific topic and let the product review/discussion be incidental to or illustrative of the subject. In a sense, this isn’t quite a product review, I don’t really zero in on the product, I look more at the idea of the product. Maybe one day I will do a product review site of some sort. In fact, I would love to do a site where products are posted and people rate them (please, feel free to steal the idea).

However, once in a while a product gets and grips my attention. It may not score very high on the originality or innovation charts, it may not be pretty, or chockfull of features, but if it is particularly useful, if it meets a particular need, if it helps enrich the lives of Nigerians, then it is worth a few words here.image

The usual wanderings round the internet looking for material led me first to Twitter, then to a blog (the interestingly named (www.AgegeLabs.com), which led to www.1spotsearch.com where I stopped cold. To put it mildly, I was quite impressed. In fact before evening visiting the site, I was impressed by the concept when I read about it. See, I appreciate sites like Interswitch’s payment portal where I can pay a variety of service bills without leaving my seat. I also appreciate ventures like ticketonmobile.com  that present an end to end solution that provide a mesh of online and real world services as part of a seamless product (though I am yet to use their service). Still, I am even more impressed by what 1SpotSearch offers.

1SpotSearch is a flight information aggregator service. You visit the site, select where you are flying from and flying to and when, click to get flights and voila, the site gets you a list of possible flight schedules from various Nigerian airlines for your dates and destinations. Did I mention that I am impressed? Well, I am.

The site doesn’t look like much. Indeed I would call it downright ugly. The developer needs to sit down with a designer or take a month to study www.smashingmagazine.com. However the value it offers is huge. Rather than opening multiple browser windows to compare flight availability and cost between Virgin Nigeria, Aero Contractors and Arik Air, you get all that data  in one simple table. Now that is pretty nifty piece of work. Now understand that this is not unique. Sites like Travelocity, Expedia.com, Hotels.com have provided such services for years. However is it notable because it accomplishes this for Nigerian airline services. This is not aggregating RSS news feeds from services that go out of their way to actually shove their data at you to consume in every which way possible(sorry, Nnanna, but it’s not). Unless of course the airlines actually pipe out the data as RSS or Atom (enough of the technical terms). This is some nice programming (I think) that goes out and grabs this info from the airline sites.

This is impressive on a variety of levels because it can literally explode in a huge number of interrelated services. Flight aggregation can lead to hotel aggregation as Nigerian hotels become encouraged to put their services on the Internet in a way that they can be discovered by similar services. Hotel aggregation can lead to journey planning for local trips or people coming into Nigeria from outside using web-based tools. All this aggregating can lead to someone providing package services that make the overall cost cheaper for customers. This in turn can incorporate customer reviews that rate service quality (yes I am back on that tack) and can then lead to service providers being more concerned about service quality, competing more on price and wealth of service offering. I envision a rich cascading mesh of related services making life more productive for hundreds of thousands, creating a new socio-economic reality for all. PHCN willing.

However, I digress.

1SpotSearch is still in beta meaning it is not a finished product. It is just out there for people to test and to get the word out. This is standard practice for web-based services. it’s unfinished condition is obvious. Aside from the less than compelling aesthetics, a bunch of expected services are not yet available. this includes the very logical ability to actually complete the transaction on the site or at least make reservations. The system is also unstable as after my first test of the system, I was unable to get any results on subsequent tests only getting an error message saying “the website is too busy to show the webpage”. Again these kinds of things are expected for a service that is still clearly under development.

I will be keeping an eye on this site to see what becomes of it. I really, really hope it flies.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Just the web? I don't think so.

A quick scan of our blog posts will show that the most consistent theme is the World Wide Web and it's technologies. There is nothing surprising about this, after all the Web is the most pervasive use of modern technologies and is the medium via which most IT capabilities are being delivered.

This is because the Web is the quickest and cheapest means to reach the largest number of people in the world. This is why people like me see the Web as the means to bring about a true Renaissance on so many levels of Nigerian life.

Having said all that, this blog is not about the Web or even just the Internet. It is about the journeyings of Nigeria down the path of IT. The web is the biggest highway in that journey, but the drivers and their reasons for travelling are what make the highway what it is and I need to keep remembering that.

How does IT make your life different from what it used to be (good or bad)?


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Facebook Proves Its Worth (To Me).

Facebook finally proved its worth to me when a daughter of a friend of my parents who had been trying to reach them for more than a decade was finally able to reach me by looking up my (admittedly uncommon) name on Facebook.com. The ability to easily connect people in this way is one of the value propositions of tools like this.

Now I know that a Facebook party was organised a few years ago, and I personally am trying to raise some enthusiasm for a Wiimbledon contest from my page, but consider the possibilities for social change. With the Nigerian political machinery getting ready to assault 2011, how do we use Facebook, LinkedIn and their ilk to rescue the next general elections?


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Second 10

image 10 posts ago, we celebrated (well announced) our first 10 posts and we discussed some plans. We haven’t kept them. We said:

‘Over the coming weeks and months, we will begin to add more structured content to the blog. Much of the material thus far has been mainly this writer’s experiences and perspectives. We ill expand beyond this by covering other people’s experiences and efforts as they make their digital crossings. For instance, there is a group of National Youth Corp Members in Surulere that are trying to make some serious impact on their community that I plan to cover in the next couple of weeks. The Crossings will also be keeping an eye out for innovative products and services that we can point people to. We will test them where possible (translation – where it will cost little or nothing to do so), possibly interview the people behind them and give you our take on them. Another thing we will be looking at is how governments are using computing technology in Nigeria to get things done. Since this is meant to be a learning resource as well we will be doing “how-to's” on a variety of topics. Together with all this, I will still emote, philosophise, rant and rave as is appropriate.’

Now on this our 20th post let’s review how we’ve done. We didn’t add more structured content, we haven’t looked at what the governments are doing yet, we really haven’t reviewed any products per se. Now we did look at the Youth Corps members and we did a drive-by of some Nigerian web-based services, and we have provided some information about the risk of hoaxes and phishing. However, I believe this blog can do much better in engaging Nigerians on information technology and how it is increasingly impacting our lives daily. Our intentions still remain what I had outlined in “Ten” and we will work towards creating a structure that supports that as we go on. To do that we may change our blogging platform to one that gives us more flexibility than Blogger, but we’ll see how much we can stretch Blogger before we take that route. In fact, after this post is up, I’ll be working on exploring more feature rich blogger templates as soon as I can. In addition this journeyman blogger will be hitting the books and websites to learn more ways to make this blog a richer experience for all concerned.

One of the other things we will do, as a result of feedback (no not in the comments section – thanks people) is post more than once a week. The Tuesday post will still be the main post, but there will be shorter posts on other week days that capture things of note that would be worth sharing before the Tuesday post. I would also like to invite other technology writers who would like to guest write on this blog to let me know and it would be a pleasure to have your material here. It would be a lot easier to put better content out there if there were more people writing this stuff.

So what have the numbers been like since we did our tenth post? Using Google Analytics again:


And by geographic spread:


This more than triples the number of visitors (83 from 18 cities) we had during our first 10 weeks. Not bad eh? Not to sound like a broken record, but this would be a greater experience for all of us if there is more visitor participation. Talking about participation, have we done any good since we started this blog? Well, Silverbird Cinemas have updated their site somewhat for the first time in over a year. Now I don’t know whether it is due to the post we did or not, but it is nice to imagine that someone over there read it and did something – even if it is only minimal, very minimal. I also had someone write in about getting involved with the Youth Corps programme. However, we won’t know unless you give us a heads up by writing comments and telling us about it.

And my Wiimbledon challenge still stands!


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I Want To Play Wiimbledon!

Two weeks ago, i got heavy with my post about hoaxes. Last week I got even heavier talking about phishing. This week, I think it’s time to lighten up, have a little fun and keep everything under 500 words.

I just got through watching the French Open (hurray Federer) and this got me thinking about the Nintendo Wii. The Nintendo Wii is the most revolutionary game console to come out in a while. What’s great about the Wii is that unlike the other game consoles out there it provides a completely different way for people people to play games. PC games, the Xbox, PS2, PS3 and other game consoles use controllers that are, well controlled, with fingers and thumbs. So you sit back, you couch potato and twiddle your thumbs while hurting your back and arms.

The Wii, on the other hand, comes with a controller called the “Wii-mote”. The idea is that you move the Wii-mote around with your whole arm or wrist, and depending on the game you are playing, the system somewhat emulates your motions. Some of the games can become whole body experience. With Wii Sports Boxing for example, you get three rounds of full motion boxing action with everything except the physical contact (and the consequent pain). With Wii Tennis you face the screen as one of the tennis players and and swing the Wii-mote at the ball on the screen. So you are actually moving around like you are actually playing tennis. Ok, not the most coherent of explanations, but the YouTube video below explains it better (The picture versus the thousand words).

Anyway, Wii owners know what I am talking about already. If you don’t have one the video may help. Wii is a great deal of fun and a lot of people use the Wii game console for a exercise and you can get a very good cardio-vascular work out with Wii tennis and Wii boxing. It is actually used by medical professionals to aid with physiotherapy. You can have a whole lot of family fun with the bowling game and the Wii golf. And that’s just one game. There are a huge variety of games out there that are great for exercise and family bonding and are just great fun.

Now, in Europe and the US, tournaments around Wii Tennis have been created called Wiimbledon. Note the second “i”. It is not a typo. I really do want to play Wiimbledon. I’m pretty certain I could win one of these contests. So I’m calling all Wii owners in Nigeria. Let’s have our won Wiimbledon in Lagos, Nigeria in September. I’m making this up as I go along, I’m looking for a minimum of 50 interested Wii tennis players. If I get 10, I’ll set up a proper site and start to put things together. If you’re interested, drop me a line in the comments field or if you use twitter hit me up there. We’ll figure out time venue, prizes, funding and all together. My handle is @the_dej. (and no we are not under 500 words).


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Phishing for Trouble

I think it started with the airlines. It may actually have begun with the late lamented www.shopforless.com, but I think it was the airlines. Whoever may have been the first to offer online payment on websites in Nigeria, they were faced with a society that was sceptical about providing financial information online.


When the banks started offering MasterCard services, they were initially adopted by people with international exposure who had been chomping at the bit for a payment mechanism to use online or on trips abroad. These people could not open accounts in the US or Europe and get credit or debit cards and so were eager to take advantage of these new services. Slowly this led to increasing awareness and confidence in the populace that payment systems could be locally supported here in Nigeria. By the time InterSwitch and eTransact cards became part of the national idiom they met a significant part of the populace who were not only willing to shop online but demanded web-based services.

I think the airlines helped the most. The convenience of booking, making payments, rescheduling flights without having to go to the airport or the bank or calling up a travel agent cannot be quantified. My wife lived through this particular evolution and was an ardent evangelist of this at a time when even vastly more technologically-oriented people were not even aware that these online fulfilment systems were even available.

Phishing Means You’re Bait

Aside from the ecommerce sites, the banks have rolled out a range of services on the internet. These include passive services like checking transaction histories, and active services such as funds transfers, cheque confirmation or revocation as well as utility payment systems. InterSwitch itself has a site where you can pay several different bills from service providers such DSTV and Zain on your PC or your internet enabled mobile phone. With all this and a host of ecommerce products and services now available Nigeria, like most of the world, is swinging through the lush forests of ecommerce.

Unfortunately, here there be tygers.

Internet criminals are now plaguing Nigerians and our own home-grown ecommerce and online payment systems like they do international products and services. There are a variety of criminal mechanisms designed to fleece people of their money, one in particular bears discussion. It is known as phishing. The word is a corruption of the English word “fishing”. Perhaps the concept of a fisherman dangling his bait in the water waiting patiently for a victim to swim by is the basis for this usage. Using Wikipedia’s definitions:

“In the field of computer security, phishing is the criminally fraudulent process of attempting to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. Communications purporting to be from popular social web sites, auction sites, online payment processors or IT Administrators are commonly used to lure the unsuspecting public. Phishing is typically carried out by e-mail or instant messaging,[1] and it often directs users to enter details at a fake website whose look and feel are almost identical to the legitimate one. Even when using server authentication, it may require tremendous skill to detect that the website is fake.”

More Than Meets the Eye

Earlier this year (or was it late last year) a phishing scam email was going around in which people were told that InterSwitch was upgrading its systems and needed owners of InterSwitch cards to go to a website (a link was provided) and enter their card number, expiration date and PIN. Anyone who did this would have ended up giving their card details to criminals who would have used the information to rapidly make purchases for goods and services online to the limit of what the person had in their account. A screenshot of the scam message is included below as an example.


Image courtesy of Spam Email Graveyard

The example is typical of the scam. It purports to come from a well known organisation. It puts you under time pressure, makes you afraid that if you don’t take action, you may lose access to something important and it provides you with a link to go to. While simple, this is also powerfully effective. In particular, note the link in the image. It is actually a perfectly legitimate InterSwitch link. However if you were to click on it, the code behind the text would take you to a completely different page. In this case you would have ended up at the link below. image

Some links in other spam messages may not be this well done and may be variation of the legitimate address. So for example “interswitch-ng.com” could trick some people.

Because of phishing scams too many Nigerian sites have some kind of warning as a pop-up or other kind of fraud alert message on their web pages. InterSwitch has one. As do Guaranty Trust Bank, MTN and no doubt everyone else worth their salt. imageOften ugly and distracting from the overall web experience, but like the metal bars on our windows and the spikes on our fences, they are unfortunately necessary. Despite these efforts many are still taken in by this and other “social engineering” scams.

Phishing scams are not always internet based and many play on the baser human instincts. For instance a popular warning in the Nigerian media from the phone companies is around scams that send you a text message telling you that you have phone something from the provider and you need to send a recharge card PIN to the number provided to claim the prize.

Breaking the Line

So how do you avoid becoming a victim of a phishing scam?

The very first thing is to NEVER EVER click on a link in an email message you receive that has some of the characteristics I have described. Instead open a browser and type in the LEGITIMATE address your are familiar with for the service. So if I received such a message claiming to be from GTBank for instance, I would go my browser and type in www.gtbplc.com rather than clicking on any link. If the email was truly from that site, there would be some information on the website, usually on the home page, if it is general message to its user populace. It will be within your account pages if it is a specific message to you.

Secondly, use a modern web browser. The latest versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer (version 7 and above), Mozilla Firefox (2.0 and higher), Google Chrome (all versions) and Opera all have in-built tools that provide some level of protection against phishing attacks. The internet security versions of some popular antivirus tools such Norton Internet Security also add their own phishing protection to the common browsers.

Using a spam filter (a tool that removes unsolicited email messages from your mailbox) also provides some level of protection. The public services – Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and their like – have inbuilt spam filters and most organisations that host their own email have invested in them. However spam filters and phishing protection tools are not 100 per cent reliable.

Continuous vigilance is needed in order to avoid becoming a victim of such scams. Treat the internet with the enjoyment and the same wariness as the Balogun market. Revel in the rich variety of goods, sites and sounds, but keep your eyes peeled and your pocketbook tightly clasped to your side.


My sympathies go to the families of the victims of Air France Flight 447. May they find comfort in God as they face this.