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Cuban "Technological Sovereignty" - a Walled Garden Strategy?

Larry Press

ToDus, a messaging application described as a "Cuban WhatsApp" and Apklis, a distribution site for Android mobile apps, were featured at the First Computerization Workshop held recently at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas (UCI).

One might ask, why do we need a Cuban WhatsApp and Apklis when we already have WhatsApp itself and the Google Play Store?

ToDus seems to duplicate WhatsApp's features. Users can send messages, photos and other files to individuals or groups of up to 250 members and, like WhatsApp, it is secure — messages are encrypted and stored on users phones, not toDus servers. (ToDus users cannot speak with each other using this version of the program, but that feature will be added). Since toDus is a free app, I believe it could be listed on the Google Play Store as well as on Apklis.

The key difference between toDus and Apkis and WhatsApp and the Play Store is that the former run on Cuba's national intranet, not the global Internet. One could argue that this duplication is done to lower operating costs or improve performance. I don't know how Cuba's international access is priced, but it seems that the marginal cost of international traffic for a chat app used by 11 million people would be very small and the latency difference imperceptible. (If Cuba is trying to save on communication cost or cut latency, they would be way better off pursuing an undersea cable between Havana and Florida).

Yadier Perdomo, Director of Networks at UCI, may have alluded to a more significant motivation when he stated that toDus "guarantees technological sovereignty, something that similar products, such as WhatsApp and Messenger (from Facebook), do not do." I am not sure what he means by "technological sovereignty," but it seems consistent with an overall effort to focus on domestic as opposed to global communication and services. Furthermore, ETECSA is rolling out 3G mobile connectivity (and experimenting with 4G) and evidently planning to charge less for access to the national intranet than the Global Internet.

Does this point to a strategy of encouraging a Cuban "walled garden" that favors intranet communication and services (and El Paquete Semanal) over Global Internet communication and services?

That policy would have two negative side effects. For one, it would create two classes of Cuban users — the relatively poor, mass population that predominantly uses mobile phones on the intranet and elite users with access to the global Internet using computers as well as mobile phones. The Internet-enabled users would have access to more information and more powerful application and be better able to create content.

Second, while Cuba can create and support a simple application like toDus on its own, they lack the scale and resources to create complex and mass-data dependent applications — Cuba's Ecured will never be as comprehensive as WikiPedia, their Mapa service will never be as useful as Google Maps, there can never be a Cuban equivalent of Google Translate, etc.

One might justify favoring the intranet over the Internet as an interim step to what the Cubans call "the computerization of society," but it is a drain of resources in the short run and a dead-end in the long run. Cubans should focus on things in which they have a comparative advantage — as the saying goes, "do what you do best and link to the rest."

Well, brings me to the end of this post, but I want to add two miscellaneous tidbits — kind of a PS:

1. If you go to the Internet portal of Cuba's intranet, you see links to toDus and Apklis. Both are broken from outside of Cuba, but the Apklis link is to https://www.apklis.cu/es/. It seems they are working on multi-language versions of the site.

2. The names and logos of Apklis and toDus are completely goofy. The toDus logo is evidently a reference to the Cuban tody bird and I cannot guess the rationale behind the Apklis butterfly. One thing is clear — neither name or logo says anything about the corresponding service, though one might guess that Apklis has something to do with APKs.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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