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Smarter Phones

High-powered handsets offer few advantages for the developing world.

It is an article of faith in technological circles that the smart phone will become the dominant personal device around the world within the next decade. After all, smart-phone shipments surpassed PC shipments in 2010 (see Briefing). How long before we see a device comparable to a first-generation iPhone or Droid for emerging markets?

Smart phones are already arriving in some parts of the developing world. When I visited Tanzania last May, for example, I was shocked by the number of advertisements for BlackBerry; I even saw them on passport control booths on my way out of the country. Members of the urban elite in Africa seem to be following directly in our footsteps, to the delight of smart-phone makers like RIM, Google, and Apple.

Yet after spending extensive time in Africa conducting ethnographic research, I am beginning to worry that for the majority of the world’s population, smart phones may actually be a move in the wrong direction. There is much to be learned instead from the innovative uses to which basic, “outdated” mobile phones are being put in this broad, underserved market. The Kenyan mobile banking service M-Pesa, for example, is driving a mobile revolution in banking. But it didn’t become popular because of touch screens and mobile apps.

When devices can handle only voice calls and text messaging, services must be simple, efficient, accessible, and affordable. That makes them broadly useful for large numbers of people. Legions of dedicated apps, by contrast, force functionality, information, and users into silos.

The most successful consumer technology in the developing world—radio—demonstrates the power of spreading information widely and efficiently. Bulk text-messaging services like SMSall in Pakistan are some of the most important innovations in international development over the last decade. Accessible from any handset, they support group coördination and community awareness.

Mobile devices in the developing world are shared resources, not personal computers used by a single person, as the smart-phone model assumes. One phone may be used by a whole family—or a whole community where an entrepreneur offers phone services. Pursuing the path to increasingly beautiful (and expensive) personal gadgets simply does not serve these people’s interests. Instead, they need their mobile identities to be freed from hardware.

This is a radical shift for companies seeking new audiences in the developing world, but it can be done. At Frog, we have been working with a startup called Movirtu on a technology that allows people to use any handset to access their personal information. Now, why can’t my iPhone or Droid do that?

Touch screens can certainly improve the user experience, but in many potential markets, hardware and apps may be beside the point. Separating mobile services from specific advances in hardware can unlock tremendous value. The sooner we do this, the better.

Robert Fabricant is vice president of creative at Frog Design, where he leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries.

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