For some time now, smartphones have become tediously similar (see “The New Smartphone Incrementalism”). We’ve been to the glitzy U.S. launches—the Motorola Droids, the Nokia Windows phones, the iPhone 5, the Blackberry 10, and so on. Let’s face it: they are much the same. Mobile World Congress this week in Barcelona was filled with the latest advances—but, again, these were at the margins.
The real interesting story is at the low end: how to put mobile Internet in the hands of the world’s poorest two or three billion people. The next wave of innovation and the biggest impacts will come from their hands. As Manoj Kohli, CEO of Bharti Airtel, said today in Barcelona: “They are young and hungry to pick up the Internet faster than anyone else.”
CEOs like Kohli are of course trying to tap this market. Nokia’s Xpress browser is cloud-based and consumes less data—helpful for people crimped by expensive dataplans. Some analysts believe Apple may be stalled, in part, because it so far has no low-end, developing-world product. Mozilla thinks its Firefox OS software, because it creates a Web-based platform that can run on lower-end phones, will fill a need. “We’re all going to participate in writing the next chapter of the Web,” said Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs at a panel in Barcelona.
Meanwhile, battered Nokia simple-phones and other models from a decade ago still circulate in market stalls in Kenya and many other countries. (Nokia this week launched its latest simple phone the Nokia 105, to sell for around $20.) Thin connectivity and simple functionality can be a dramatic game-changer for commerce, health, banking, and networking (see “Kenya’s Startup Boom”). People in poor countries who scrape by with little tend to be more resourceful and creative than the rest of us. They’ll do amazing things with whatever new or used technology they can get their hands on. And no one company’s strategy or solution is going to trump that force.