In Cuba, app stores pay rent
An ingenious answer to digital deprivation
Feb 4th 2017 | HAVANA
CUBANS, like citizens of most countries in the digital age, are familiar
with app stores. But theirs have actual doors, windows and counters. Los
Doctores del Celular, a mobile-phone repair shop a few blocks from
Havana's Malecón seaside promenade, is one example. Inside, a Super
Mario effigy, kitted out with lab coat and stethoscope, keeps vigil
while technicians transfer apps to customers' smartphones via USB cables
attached to the shop's computers. Although the United States' embargo on
Cuba makes it hard to buy apps and other services online, "Cubans are
quickly picking up on app culture," says Jorge-Luis Roque, a technician.
A bundle of 60-70 apps costs $5-10. Customers delete the ones they don't
The bricks-and-mortar app store is an ingenious Cuban response to
digital deprivation. The island has some 300 public Wi-Fi hotspots, up
from none two years ago. But connections are slow and, especially by
Cuban standards, expensive; they normally cost $1.50 an hour. Adhering
to the American embargo, app publishers like Apple and Google block
downloads in Cuba. Music lovers can browse the iTunes store, but cannot
buy songs or apps; Cubans can get the free apps on Google Play, but not
the ones that cost money.
Mr Roque and his colleagues compensate for such faulty connections with
human ones. With relatives abroad and access to their credit cards, they
can download apps using "virtual private networks", which can fool app
publishers into thinking that they are communicating with, say, Miami.
Los Doctores del Celular then sell these on to the shop's customers. The
clients' phones come from relatives overseas, the black market or
Revolico, a website that lists services and second-hand goods for sale.
Among the most popular apps are Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, cheaper
ways of staying in touch with families living abroad than texting or
calling. "We have a very large population of app-literate grannies,"
says Mr Roque. Cubans like apps that require little memory or
connectivity. Imo, a video and messaging app that can operate with low
bandwidth, is a favourite. Students are customers for offline versions
of Wikipedia and apps that specialise in biology, maths and other
academic subjects. Taxi drivers rely on offline navigation apps like
Cubans are creators as well as consumers of apps. Isladentro, a
directory of services offered by small businesses, is updated monthly
and hand-delivered on USB sticks to 100 mobile-phone repair shops. The
app's digital listings, which incorporate photos, reviews and maps, are
a big improvement over promotional flyers, says Indhira Sotillo, who
manages the listings. These were expensive and messy, and "we all ended
up with little pieces of paper everywhere", she says.
Isladentro's imagery is crude by Retina Display standards: maps are low
resolution and photos are compressed. That is because the data has to be
stored on the phone rather than in the hard-to-reach cloud. Cuban-made
apps are thus as thrifty with bytes as the locals are with cash.
Isladentro's developers reduced the memory it occupies from 890
megabytes to 240, says Ms Sotillo.
Such expedients may be less necessary if data start to flow faster.
Cuba's communist government is letting that happen, but cautiously. It
says the Malecón will become a 6km-long (four-mile) Wi-Fi hotspot. In
December it reached a deal with Google to put servers in Cuba. That
should speed up connections to Google's services, which account for
roughly half of Cuba's internet traffic. There is talk of introducing
mobile data. That would make downloading apps easier, though it would
not solve the problem of the embargo or the absence of local credit
cards. Neither Cuba's government nor the Trump administration is in a
hurry to free Cubans' access to data. Until they do, Los Doctores del
Celular will remain a bricks-and-mortar app store.
Source: In Cuba, app stores pay rent | The Economist -