The Africa Phone is a project inside Motorola, triggered by people who have discovered a remarkable statistic: that when 20 percent of a population has secure phone communications, dictators get overthrown.
Take a country like Zimbabwe in Southern Africa—one where the same President, head of the Politburo—has ruled for decades, and feels free to literally bulldoze away districts which voted against him. Mobile phone penetration there is 5 percent or less.
Its no secret that certain Western leaders are aghast at what Mugabe is doing, and spend much effort saying that he ought to be ousted. The trouble is, international law prevents sending in the troops unless there are specific conditions—and an outside desire for regime change isnt accepted as one.
But sending in the phones?
The plan is simple: to create a $20 mobile phone and make it available in Africa. Mobile phone technology does the rest, and, it is hoped, several dictators will find themselves out of a job.
Now, how does Sendo come into the picture...?
Sendo, until Motorola bought it out of bankruptcy today, was Britains only mobile phone maker. It was a minnow amongst sharks, with its plans for growth depending on a very chancy strategy.
To understand some of what just happened with Sendo, Motorola and the European Community, you probably need to know that Sendo founder Hugh Brogan was once a senior executive at Motorola.
As a sales expert, he knew a lot about how phone networks operate; during his time at Philips, he formulated his strategy: to make the phone unbranded and configure it for the network.
As a strategy, it started out very promisingly. Phones appeared on the market with the networks brand name, instead of Nokia or Motorola or Ericsson or Siemens.
But it wasnt just branding that marked out Sendo. What Motorola has bought today, apart from some very good engineers and a long intellectual property catalog, is the idea of building the phone on a software platform that could be almost instantly tweaked to look entirely different.
Todays networks fear churn more than anything. To prevent customers from leaving them, they are prepared to spend money on a lavish scale. Examples of lock-in tactics include very successful projects like Orange World or Vodafone Live that attract customers away from rival networks and enroll them in a sort of club with many benefits and cool features.
This may be a self-defeating strategy in the long term, in much the same way as "Green Shield Stamps"—when everybody is giving away trading stamps, nobody has any competitive advantage, except for those who offer double stamps, then quadruple stamps, and then... everybody has to give up.
But, self-defeating or not, its a real headache for the conventional phone builder. A network approaches Motorola, for example, and says: "We want your phone, but it has to have the following features: this extra red button, this extra download system and this software."
Internally, Motorola found this a killer, especially in Europe. Executives will, privately, admit that it took them a minimum of nine months to be able to return to the network operator and say: "Heres a prototype." And, enviously, they could watch Sendo going back pretty much the next day, or, certainly, within a week, with a fully customized phone.
That tweakable software platform, plus the experienced technical experts to drive it, now belongs to Motorola, and one of the projects that my sources say it will be very useful on is the Africa Phone.
How? If you find out, let me know! The project is still not publicly visible, and, fascinating though it may be, hard information eludes public gaze.
Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at email@example.com.