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When low tech is better than high tech

Mike Elgan | Jan. 7, 2013
Sometimes the latest isn't the greatest

I've been in Kenya for two months, and it's shocking to see just about everyone paying for things with their cellphones.

And by cellphones, I mean cellphones -- not smartphones.

While America waits for ultra-high-tech NFC and smartphone-app-based solutions, this East African country has already made mobile payments the standard way to pay for things.

The system is called M-Pesa. (The M stands for mobile, and pesa is Swahili for money, so the brand name means "mobile money.")

The genius of M-Pesa, and the reason that more than half the world's mobile transactions take place using this system, is that it uses low-tech SMS technology to transfer money, rather than the high-tech NFC systems we're still waiting for.

SMS eliminates the need for expensive advanced phones with special electronics. Anyone with any mobile phone can use SMS.

M-Pesa users can make bank deposits and withdrawals and exchange money with one another. They can also pay bills and transfer funds to pay for their prepaid phone accounts.

And because it's low tech, it's both simple and cheap.

While the rest of us are getting constantly raked over the coals by predatory banks that charge credit card fees for everything, M-Pesa is a banking system that barely uses banks. There's a very small fee charged for each transaction, and that's about it.

And while we're all waiting for some utopian future with mobile payments, Kenya has had mobile payments for years -- the low-tech way.


In the past four years, thousands of education-, news- and information-related mobile apps have emerged. And they're getting increasingly sophisticated. For example, a new iOS app I told you about recently called Grokr practically reverse-engineers your brain to deliver news and information it thinks will be relevant to you.

The newest learning technology is the best technology, but it doesn't give you the best learning.

The best technology for learning and staying informed since the creation of the book is the humble podcast.

A good podcasting app will let you subscribe to your favorite podcasts and automatically download them. When you're ready to listen, they're already on your phone.

Podcasting, and by extension Apple's iTunes U and audio books, is best because it's reliable, it offers high-quality content, it's flexible and -- best of all -- it lets you learn while you do other things.

The biggest barrier to your ongoing education is time.

You want to stay on top of all the news. You want to learn a new language. You want to become more educated about your line of work. You want your mind expanded by the ideas of brilliant public intellectuals.

Nobody has time for that.


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