min read

Bringing the ‘smart’ to the most basic of phones

by Anna Parkinson , 31.10.2012

Facebook, Twitter, emails, reading the news, searching the web... these are things the majority of us now do on our mobiles every day. In fact, making calls on phones is down in 5th place in terms of features used on a daily basis. New research from O2 has shown that we spend an average of 24 minutes on the Internet, 17 minutes using social media sites, 15 minutes listening to music, 14 minutes playing games and 12 minutes making calls (only a minute longer than time spent texting). In the western world, being able to do all this is synonymous with the use of a smartphone, probably one with a large touchscreen and contracts with high data allowance. However, an Australian startup is bucking this idea with its free Java app, biNu, which can be downloaded onto most basic phones and used over 2G wireless networks.

biNu has been a real success story in developing countries, such as India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, where basic ‘dumb’ phones remain the most common type of phone. Since the launch 18 months ago, over 4 million customers have downloaded the app enabling them to update Facebook and Twitter, read the news, and search the web more quickly than they’d been able to over a mobile browser. biNu transfers most of the data processing away from the phone and onto distant servers, taking a different approach to normal web browsers, meaning the experience is 10 times faster and 10 times more data-efficient. It’s a necessary development as looking at a website on a feature phone can be slow and limited to mobile-geared web pages, made even more tedious when trying to do so over a 2G network. And for users, there is the extra benefit of costing less than using a browser to do the same thing.

Despite some limitations (biNu is not able to support watching videos through YouTube or playing most games), this is another step in the right direction for creating something positive and beneficial out of the ‘dumb’ phones still used widely in developing markets. Such a ‘DIY’ approach means life can be enhanced through simple mobile applications. And there are many examples of developing markets using applications for more constructive and life-improving reasons than, for example, the obsession in developed markets of playing Angry Birds to bide time on the daily commute or using apps to ‘automate life’s little tasks’.

Since 2009, Nokia has provided ‘Life Tools’ which are a range of information services covering healthcare, agriculture, education and entertainment in India, Indonesia, China and Nigeria. While these are SMS based, they’ve led to the development of hundreds more applications in these areas, often using games to attract attention and interest. One gaming app teaches mothers and daughters about the pregnancy cycle and maternal health, another (designed for the Indian market) is called ‘The Patels’ and deals with family conflicts like marriage, education and gender equality. And Doctors in Africa and Asia now use an application to send out mobile alerts to mothers of children who show signs of illness at weekly checkups. There is also evidence to suggest these applications may empower women in regions typically dominated by men. For example, over one thousand illiterate women in India have learned to read thanks to an NGO and mobile application.

Some believe that as smartphones become more prevalent around the world and developed regions busy themselves deciding whether to go for the iPhone 5 or wait for the next similarly-advanced model to come along, services such as biNu and these applications have limited longevity. However, on the whole, these apps currently target feature phones, with research suggesting that even in 2015, feature phones will outnumber smartphones in developing countries by nearly four to one.

Yet to truly maximize the benefits of these applications and services, apps should not be restricted in this way. Smartphones are becoming cheaper and more affordable with even the most basic smartphones offering a better user experience (UX). So much so that we can expect the ratio towards smartphones to grow and pick up pace over time in these regions, albeit it basic smartphones to begin with. For this reason, it’s crucial that developments in this area and the ‘DIY’ approach to utilizing networks and handsets that extends their potential continue both in range and reach.