It was November 2015 and a group of us were having dinner in Montclair, New Jersey. The conversation turned to the type of smartphones we each had.
My friend Joan pulled out her dinosaur of a phone – a Motorola C168i, and I (in retrospect I’m ashamed to say) had one of those you-must-be-kidding-me moments.
Almost apologetically, Joan said she kept it in her car in case of emergencies. In truth, there’s nothing wrong with the basic cell or feature phone, now known as “dumb” phones. And at least in Western society there’s now almost something rogue about owning a gadget that keeps life simple.
For many people in developing countries however, the basic cell phone is the mobile phone of choice and still owns a major market share over smartphones. For what has become an ongoing trend, households that don’t have a landline, computer, or broadband access, will own or at least have access to a cell phone.
There are a few clear indicators as to why smartphones are not as popular in developing countries.
- Cost of Data
Many apps that run on smartphones tend to require huge amounts of data. While data is always an expensive commodity, it becomes non-essential in rural areas where some families live on a daily budget of what amounts to the cost of a Starbucks coffee.
- Cost of a Smartphone
It might surprise many to know that the best-selling mobile phone in the world is not the iPhone, but a basic one - the Nokia 1100. For smartphones to gain ground in developing countries, the price point has to come down.
- Battery Life
Even things like how long a phone can hold its charge becomes extremely important in places where electricity can be a luxury or power outages are a frequent occurrence.
The basic cell phone has its merits in developing countries
This is not to say that the basic cell phone has only been used as an instrument of communication because it has become much more than that in some developing nations.
The well-documented case of M-Pesa in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania is an example of a successful money transfer system operated via text message, powered by telcos and opening the doors for individuals and small business owners who may not have access to traditional banking.
A survey taken by the Pew Research Center in 2014 indicated that at least 61% of cell phone owners in Kenya regularly made or received payments using their cell phones, the tally was 42% in neighboring Uganda, and 39% in Tanzania.
Basic cell phones have also been used to track important data such as UNICEF’s EduTrac. UNICEF describes EduTrac as a “data collection system that uses basic mobile phones to help frontline workers send and receive information that can help them do their jobs better”.
In Afghanistan it allows teachers to report the needs of their learning center, to share knowledge, and to communicate with other teachers. In Uganda, collected data is used to assist in educational planning on a national level.
Another example in India shows how the basic cell phone has been put into use for farmers. Farmers can subscribe to mobile services such as Reuters Market Light (RML) and be notified about weather, crop recommendations, and market prices.
The information is sent in the form of SMS text messages which farmers receive at specific times of the day. In rural areas where farmers don’t have access to consistent, reliable, information (see page 25 of the PDF), these text messages provide them with the power and potential to gain a competitive edge for their produce, while diminishing the risk of underselling.
New and improved mobile technology will require the smartphone
Apart from the ‘cool’ factor appeal that smartphones hold for the individual, there are opportunities for the smartphone market that should not be overlooked in emerging and developing countries.
We need only to look at the example of healthcare. Health workers will need smartphones as technology advances in the area of medical device and recordkeeping. There is now a smartphone-based ultrasound device developed by MobiSante that allows healthcare workers to perform ultrasounds almost anywhere. In remote areas where a mother may have to travel hundreds of miles for medical treatment and assessment, this can undoubtedly be a life saver.
Ultrasound imaging with the ability to send images via Wi-Fi and networks could also prove useful for first aid and rescue workers, and for wounded soldiers.
Then there are the apps that simply run better on smartphones such as the one that was developed by eHealth Africa to trace and report on anyone who had come into contact with Ebola patients. Many believe that contact tracing was instrumental in helping Nigeria to eradicate this disease.
A growing trend towards smartphones
The Pew Research suggested that smartphones in developing nations are owned by the younger (under the age of 30), tech-savvy population, and those with a college degree.
Trends are ever-changing of course, and surveys predict there is already an overall shift towards greater smartphone ownership.
In 2013, China’s Huawei unveiled a new smartphone for Africa. Based off of its success, it is now looking to launch an even cheaper smartphone in South Africa and Kenya in 2017.
Basic cell phones: function over form
The market share for smartphones has grown exponentially in North America and Europe, so much so that seeing someone using a basic cell phone makes them look antiquated (call us gadget, tech, or trend snobs if you must).
However, basic handsets remain a matter of pure practicality in developing countries. Exactly how much this will change in the following years requires guarded forecasting because it must take into account:
- Broadband access and affordability
- Pricing of the phones themselves
- Availability of the power to charge them
- Growth of a rising middle class
Basic cell phones will continue to rule in these developing nations as long as it can meet the needs of the city or village dweller, the sharecrop farmer, small business owner and civil servant.
I’d wager that there are smartphone owners around the world who wish they could go back to the days when life was simpler with their basic phones …but that’s a topic for another blog!