Cloud Society: developing nations and the leapfrog effect

Move over western world. Cloud computing is set to give a boost to emerging nations.

A few years ago, I was talking to Paul Mountford, president of emerging markets for Cisco.

In the course of the conversation, I may have implied that emerging economies were technologically behind the curve compared to western economies. With only a tinge of annoyance Paul kindly explained how, au contraire, countries without existing infrastructure were in a position to leapfrog those who had decades of embedded kit to build on, interface to, integrate with.

I've been pondering that conversation ever since, particularly the leap-frogging aspect. Of course, it could be argued that you can only leapfrog existing, infrastructure-laden economies once, before you join them - though equally, it does take a decade or so for even the best-intended, future safe IT architectures to evolve into technological soup.

At the same time, with a bit of forethought it doesn't have to be that way - consider the different philosophies of Microsoft and Apple, in which the former is forever trying to extricate itself from supporting the diverse array of past configurations and options, and the other has a 'keep up, get with the program' attitude, but applied at national level. For a real example, consider G-Cloud.

The other question is, of course, money. Infrastructure requires a lot of this - and indeed, the conversation with Paul also covered EU funding of Eastern European technology investments. Developing countries have also received a share of investment funding - for example, the EU invested €300M into developing countries between 1996-2005. However, there's still a way to go: "The flows of investment and technology to developing countries have not materialised to the extent expected," remarked the UN Industrial Development Organisation.

One success story in less cash-rich countries has been the uptake of mobile communications. Over the past 10 years according to ITU figures, developing nations have moved from the minority to a majority position, delivering nearly three quarters of the 5 billion subscriptions that exist globally. The massive adoption rate offers a salutory tale for programmes such as Nicholas Negroponte's "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) project which has been dogged by controversy

Enter the cloud, and it's not hard to extrapolate a bit. What developing countries lack in internal compute infrastructure, they make up in terms of mobile comms and device prevalence. Meanwhile back in the western world, considerable investment is going into new, remotely accessible data centres. These can, but don't have to be situated in the same countries as their users.

What's really interesting about both cloud computing and developing countries is that both are closer to the beginning of a journey than the end. "Cloud computing is in the infant stage of development," says Nir Kshetri, professor of business administration at the University of North Carolina. "Rather than viewing cloud computing as a self-contained phenomenon, it must be seen against the backdrop of economic and institutional realities facing the developing world."

In other words, cloud computing and developing countries would be wise to align, as they can probably move faster together than apart.

In the short term and to continue the journey analogy, a good first step (and one which is already being taken, according to Alex Laverty at The African File) is education. Clearly, the more that educational materials can be delivered onto mobile devices, the better - while the current handset 'stock' might not be all that suitable for interactive applications, it's worth keeping an eye on initiatives such as India's $35 tablet programme - and note that OLPC also has a tablet device in the pipeline. The lack of smart devices could prove, in hindsight, to be a temporary brake on progress.

As things move forward, of course, the opportunity grows not only for internal education and development, but also for delivery of services beyond the national boundaries. Success stories such as Zoho and Nivio, both founded in India, are indicative of the shape of things to come. Indeed, given the potential of the cloud/mobile combo, the opportunity for developing countries is not so much to leapfrog traditional infrastructure, but to get a head start in terms of innovation.

Read more about:

Sign up for our free newsletter