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New web applications can benefit the world's poor, argue Waleed al-Shobakky and Jack Imsdahl.

The term 'Web 2.0' captures the transition of the worldwide web from flat websites offering static information to a new computing platform independent of earlier shackles.

The applications available include web-based word processors and spreadsheets such as gOffice or ThinkFree, online calendars like Kiko and backup services such as that provided by Mozy. Most of these also offer free storage space, acting as a kind of virtual hard disk for saving files.

Suited for the poor?

As the variety and capabilities of these websites grow, they create unpredicted opportunities — some of which can benefit unprivileged users in the developing world.

Two aspects make Web 2.0 applications particularly suited to users in the South.

First, most applications are free to use. They may not be as sophisticated as their commercial counterparts — Google's Docs and Spreadsheets, for instance, lack many of the advanced features in Microsoft Word — but they support almost all the features needed for simple or routine tasks.

Second, these applications are all web-based — users create, save, and retrieve files online. Thus, they are not confined to any particular operating system or hardware.

This drastically reduces the cost of using applications, which can be run, for example, through a free web browser (such as Firefox) and a free operating system (such as Linux). Users only need access to the Internet to benefit from these applications.

In many parts of Africa and Latin America, progress has been made toward providing access via internet cafés, government installations, kiosks, and computing clubs. The Drishtee program in India and IT clubs in Egypt are products of this trend.

But the reduced costs alone will not entirely solve the access problem.  Users need education — particularly in English, the dominant language of the Web — and a familiarity with computers to get the most out of these applications.

We are under no illusions about Web 2.0's limits. Subsistence farmers in India or Egypt, for instance, are unlikely to benefit.

But students in schools and state-sponsored or foreign aid programs are, at various levels, becoming more and more familiar with computers.

Web 2.0 can help these students create documents, track their families' or villages' business affairs in spreadsheets and save and store data online.

Small steps, genuine gains

Many technologists disagree with us on this point. Some dismiss Web 2.0 altogether as a misleading term, insisting that these technologies are not new. They say that it is just re-packaging of existing technologies for marketing purposes, but with no added value.

It might be true that Web 2.0 is mostly based on existing technologies — but bringing them together has made them more effective.

Web 2.0 may not be a radical technological breakthrough, but incremental advances can sometimes produce huge gains. Mobile phones, for instance, are only a few steps more advanced than fixed-line telephones. But by offering a more convenient means for disseminating information they provide users with a much clearer value than their predecessors — and have been fast adopted by large numbers of the world's poor.

The skepticism of technologists aside, a couple of other hurdles might get in the way of putting Web 2.0 to the service of those who need it most.

One is that its applications are rarely available in local languages. Business developers, governments and societal institutions need to raise awareness of the business and development opportunities it presents and help adapt applications into local languages so more of their people can use them.

Another concern is that old hardware, commonly found in the developing world, may not be able to cope with most Web 2.0 applications. But this is often the case for new tools. Web designers and developers usually become more economical with their newfound tools as they recognise the spectrum of their audiences.

And as long as the companies providing these services continue to keep their products free — obtaining their revenues from other sources such as advertising — they will continue to adjust their offerings to attract more users, including those in the developing world.

Web 2.0 holds the promise of a business model in which real gains flow naturally to the world's poor.

Waleed al-Shobakky is science and technology reporter for Jack Imsdahl is an IT consultant, technology commentator and journalist.