A story popped out at me on Singularity Hub last week about an $80 Android smartphone manufactured in China and sold in Kenya.
It caught my attention precisely because cheap smartphones have the power to transform poor countries in a big way, and that’s something that should get the attention of every business.
When it comes to greenfield economies, the fastest way to the Internet is via a cellphone. It's a lot more affordable for a country with little infrastructure to put up some cell towers, and the phones are cheaper than PCs, laptops, and tablets for individual citizens.
That's why it's so interesting that Safaricom, a Kenyan ISP that reportedly has over 17 million customers, has decided to get into the low-end smartphone business. And over 350,000 Kenyans have reportedly bought the cheap phones.
The phone itself is the Huawei IDEOS. Click through and have a look. This is not half bad for the money. It runs Android 2.2 and includes WiFi, a camera, and, of course, access to the Android app store.
I can't say how well the smartphone works or how responsive it is. When the Website itself claims "higher overall performance compared with previous releases," you can infer that it might not be the highest-quality phone on the planet, but it's not supposed to be.
Phones like this one will never compete with Apple, HTC, Samsung, and Motorola products, and they don’t have to. Huawei is following the path that Nokia has taken for years by offering a cheap, affordable phone for the masses. And it's a plan that seems to be yielding some success in Kenya.
As the Singularity Hub article pointed out, this is a country where 40 percent of the population makes less than $2 a day. Put in that light, these sales figures are especially impressive. It's hard to find any independent sources to confirm these numbers, but if they're even close to accurate, it's really an astonishing market transformation.
According to an article on Business Daily, the new phones start at 8,499 Kenyan schillings. When I checked that figure on a currency converter site, that came out to $91.74 in US money, but I imagine the exchange rate is a moving target these days.
Whatever the number, a confluence of events is putting smartphones into the hands of more and more people in Kenya, and the rest of the developing world can't be far behind. First of all, you have the Chinese factor, where cheap labor and increasingly inexpensive parts are making it possible to build cheaper and cheaper phones.
Second, you have Android, the free cellphone operating system from Google. This gives companies like Huawei the ability to build cheaper phones without having to worry about operating system licensing fees, and when every penny counts, that's huge.
You have probably heard of One Laptop Per Child, an initiative to get cheap, sturdy, functional laptops into the hands of poor children throughout the world.
It's a great program that could change lives. But perhaps more than a cheap laptop, a cheap smartphone has the power to transform poor countries and bring their citizens into the Internet age -- and that could have broad and positive social, political, and economic implications.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.