If the explosion in leapfrog-world information devices comes via built-up mobile phones instead of cut-down PCs, as I suspect, one big challenge will be making sure that websites are usable via such a medium. This boils down to two broad issues: layout and bandwidth. Most websites these days are built assuming that the user has a relatively wide screen; a screen hard-coded to 800 or a thousand pixels wide will be nearly unusable on a tiny screen, either shrunken down illegibly or requiring unacceptable amounts of scrolling to just read a sentence. The bandwidth issue applies to more PC-like devices as well: modem speed connections can choke on some of the big pages built assuming access to broadband.
Loband offers a solution to both problems. Built by humanitarian information technology group Aidworld, loband is explicitly intended as a way for people in the developing world, using machines on slow connections, to access the full range of the web. Loband is technically a proxy system, in that visitors browse via entering URLs at loband.org. It then displays the page stripped of images and complex layout (but keeping font changes such as size, italics, etc.); the resulting page can be ready easily on pretty much any kind of display. This allows people browsing via slow connections or size-limited systems a much more usable experience. In addition (and possibly unintended by loband's creators), complex pages can be easily output by text-to-voice screen readers.
(A similar result can be had by using the classic command-line web browser Lynx, but that has a number of drawbacks: it almost certainly won't be pre-installed on whatever machine is being used, requiring individual acquisition and installation; in the standard form, all controls are based on keyboard use, rather than a pointer; and in the standard form, Lynx has limited ability to display typeface variations like italics and size changes. None of these are impossible to fix, but browsing via loband.org gives arguably better results now.)
Loband is the creation of Aidworld, an organization dedicated to the development of "Information Communication Technology (ICT) services and support ICT communities that contribute to the eradication of poverty, suffering and conflict and to the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by the 2015 target." Begun in 2003 by a pair of aid workers in Nepal working with the UN High Commission for Refugees, Aidworld seeks to use information technology as a tool for development, with a focus on free/open source software and services for use on low-bandwidth connections. The software behind loband is F/OSS, and is available for download and installation.
Loband is the first of Aidworld's projects to see the light of day. Others on the agenda include Aidmail, a simple but robust email application designed for speedy access over low-bandwidth connections, and Aidware, information and application support for humanitarian and relief efforts.
First thanks for the positive article about our Loband initiative. Because of articles like yours, and in particular an article on SlashDot, we served more pages through Loband on the 18th of April than the total of all days previously. In fact we served 59,216 pages that day.
Loband is still in development, and there are still some glitches in the service and some pages it doesn't work with, but we believe that it is working well enough to be useful to many people. Our big focus now is one of dissemination. Despite the big hit on the 18th only a tiny fraction of those hits have come from our target audience for whom we hope this service will be of real benefit. Our challenge now is in making this service known and accessible to those people.
I thought I would add a few technical thoughts on comparing Loband with browsers like Lynx. We are all fans of Lynx here. However an advantage Loband has over just using Lynx is that because it is server based, Loband has the opportunity to optimise the content of a web page before it is even sent to the browser. Whereas Lynx, although it doesn't download the images, still has to download the entire web page including formatting which it then doesn't show you. We're really just at the beginning of exploring what we can do with this. Also Loband enforces compression of the page before it sends it. The compression alone is one of the most significant factors in shrinking the size of the page. Of course Loband can be used together with Lynx for faster browsing. Loband can also be used by a standard browser thus hopefully giving better layout.
In the future we're looking at Loband allowing variable support for images based on user preferences or available bandwidth.
This project has been principly supported by the UK Department for International Development, the Department for Trade and Industry, and the Gatsby Trust.
If you would like to contribute to the project we would be delighted to hear from you. You can contact us through email at info AT aidworld DOT org.