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Are inexpensive smartphones the future of ICT4D?

By Guest Writer on July 29, 2011

I am Andrew J. Dupree, and nine months ago, I found myself in the same state as many other nights in my life as a computer engineering student – staring at my computer, trying to work. I was writing my first research proposal, to be submitted to the National Science Foundation as part of my application for a graduate school fellowship. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to write.

I have been interested in making computers more ubiquitous for some time. I thought I would cobble together something about low-power computer hardware and call it a day. But this rang hollow to me. Instead, I found my mind wandering back to the summer I had just spent working in Eric Brewer’s Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

I had been tasked with helping to create medical devices that used low-cost sensors interfaced with a mobile phone for computation and diagnosis. Dr. Brewer firmly believed that mobile phones, with their phenomenal growth, were the key to expanding computer-based problem solving around the world.

At a glance, the numbers support his belief. Over half of the world’s mobile phone subscribers live in the developing world. The growth rate in Africa is some 60% per year, and Southeast Asia boasts around 25% per year. There is no doubt that the mobile phone is unprecedented as far as the spread of technology is concerned.

I did notice one troublesome problem. The cost of mobile phones powerful enough to serve as a basic computing platform – aka smartphones – is prohibitive. A new smartphone (not subsidized with a lengthy contract) is going to set you back around a couple hundred dollars. Indeed, the phone we were using at TIER for our prototype retailed for around $400.

But why is this? The processors that are the heart of most smartphones are very cheap – less than $30 if bought in bulk. The communication electronics are inexpensive as well. Android OS is open source. It stands to reason that if one were to develop a smartphone with cost in mind, a fairly inexpensive model could be created.

I decided to write my research proposal on this idea. “Development of a Smartphone Mobile Computing Platform for Technical Innovation in Emerging Regions,” I called it. The NSF seemed to like it, as I got the fellowship.

However, it seems that others have beaten me to it. Huawei’s $100 smartphone is already on the market, and “iPhone Lite” rumors are flying fast and furious. Maybe the smartphone is already becoming a commodity.

But should ICT4D practitioners be excited? Can the mobile phone do better what projects like OLPC have attempted? Could a low-cost smartphone piggyback on the rapid spread of the mobile phone in the developing world, bringing with it rich applications for e-learning, e-business, and more?

Even if you think the answers to these questions are yes, it might not matter. Smartphone penetration in Africa is very low and likely to stay that way, according to a study by Informa Telecom and Media. They cite “low penetration of mobile broadband networks, the lack of compelling local content and the proliferation of prepaid subscribers” as reasons why the percentage of smartphones in Africa – currently 3% – will still be less than 15% by 2015.

So are smartphones the “digital bridge” we have been waiting for? Or just another Western oversimplification? Without a multi-pronged effort to create cheaper phones, contextualized content, and business models tailored to the developing world, we may never find out. What I am wondering now, is it worth the effort?

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12 Comments to “Are inexpensive smartphones the future of ICT4D?”

  1. I run an IT company http://www.ecrypsolutions.com that has operations all over East Africa.
    Our focus has been to offer innovative and affordable technology solutions for medium and small businesses. Our flagship product is Synergy Erp which is a web based solutions that runs on pcs and mobile phones.

    Our over 10years experience has showed us the following.
    African economies rely on small and medium business. Most of this businesses are owned by individuals/families. The trend is the owners often want to run the businneses themselves and even if they hire professionals, they still want to be involved in every little detail. Most of this owners tend to own multiple businesses in different sectors. Most of their time is spend moving from business to business. They are looking for ways they can manage without being their. Our synergy erp is getting wider acceptance because of the capability for business owners to access key information from their smart phones. There are millions of small and medium business owners in Africa who are going to buy smart phones.

    Social media sites, ecommerce sites bundled together with mobile
    money currently growing at an amazing rate, the sky is the limit. When it comes to connectivity, the fiber backbone network currently in almost every town in East Africa, connectivity is being taken care of …bottlemline is anybody doing anything for emerging markets as long as it is affordable will make huge profits in the near future

    Local content:
    there is alot going on in regard to local content. OuPr synergy erp which is a local solution is running in hundreds of businesses. There are hundreds of ecommerce sites , huge percentage of Africans access social sites via a mobile phones and would not hesitate to purchase a smart phone if an affordsble one was available

  2. andrewjdupree says:

    Thanks for the insight, Thomas! I will surely keep up with your work in the future. Quick question – you say a ” huge percentage of Africans … would not hesitate to purchase a smart phone if an affordsble one was available.” What do you think is the correct price point for affordability. Is $100 not sufficiently affordable?

  3. The Informa study highlights as barriers for developing markets low broadband penetration rates, the high rate of prepaid subscribers and the lack of content. In the past months since the Informa article was written an increasing number of companies are investing in developing and improving 3G and 4G networks in Africa. There have also been decreases in data costs. In a response to lower prices by their competitors, Vodacom recently announced a 40% decrease in data prices as they reported an 8.1% rise in revenue growth with data being listed as a major contributor to growth. Vodacom had previously dropped prices for voice calls by 24.8% which led to new customers and a 16.3% increase in average minutes used. With the reduction in data costs they will attract new customers and increase usage as they did when they dropped the cost of voice calls. As these trends continue and the price of smartphones drop what will be needed for smartphones to become the digital bridg is the content. And it is coming. There are more and more announcements innovation centers in Africa that are developing mobile applications and services and Thomas Muzembi in his response highlighted the increase in e-commerce sites and services. I work for a company called ROI3 that is creating mobile content and services specifically for developing markets to fill the need for content. Check out our facebook page for news on ICT in developing markets and to follow our progress: http://www.facebook.com/ROI3inc

  4. andrewjdupree says:

    Thanks for the comments, Emily. I will surely follow the efforts of ROI3 in the future. I hope you won’t mind if I ask you a few questions. For which platform do you do most of your development? Android? Do you think there is a contribution one interested in computer hardware can make? Or is cheap/contextualized hardware hitting the market naturally?

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Informa Telecom and Media’s estimate of less than 15% smartphone penetration by 2015 sounds plausible. The question now: since smartphones are available locally but most consumers don’t/won’t own them already, what circumstances make it worthwhile for health and development organizations to invest in programs that entail buying these phones for their staff/users?

    A key concern here, which is often overlooked even though it’s obvious when you spend time with users, is energy consumption. The battery life of the huawei ideos is comparable to a laptop, not the phones that people are accustomed to in most rural underdeveloped areas. May have a post of my own brewing to discuss this further 😉

  6. andrewjdupree says:

    Thanks for the comment, Isaac. I didn’t realize the Ideos’ battery life was so poor. Energy efficiency will definitely have to be addressed more thoroughly before the smartphone can become ubiquitous.

  7. Yeah, it’s worth re-discussing because most in our field don’t seem to realize it. The thing that drains battery fastest is searching for signal when signal is poor – a variable that is never on the box and difficult to notice without spending time in rural Kenya, Malawi etc. Getting a GPS lock can be difficult even when you have 1-2 bars of network, so ironically the killer feature that many people want smart phones for is the thing that most quickly drains battery.

  8. andrewjdupree says:

    Letting the user control the GSM connection (ie how often connection attempts are made) and providing feedback about how this is affecting battery life was one of the key features to the research proposal I wrote. While its unfortunate how problematic this can be, I am glad to know I was on the right track, hah. Thanks for the feedback. I hope you do end up writing your own post about mobile phones in developing countries – I’d love to hear the rest of your thoughts.

  9. wesmodo says:

    I own a young I.T company (www.geosafe.co.ke) dealing with emerging technologies in Africa. One of the areas we focus on most is development of local content for mobile phone users. we realize that it isn’t only smartphones and 4G networks that can be used to spur technological innovations in Africa. Creative applications of pre-existing technologies such as USSD can dramatically increase the value of a simple cellular phone. Case in point is the M-PESA utility in Kenya which provides money transfer services over the Safaricom network. This is the main profit maker of Vodafone in East Africa through it’s above-named subsidiary.Its phenomenal success rate has won it international acclaim and its model has been imitated by other countries even in the developed world. And it was successfully implemented through regular cellphones which unilaterally contributed to its finding wide use even among the low-income bracket that most Africans fall into. I guess what I’m trying to say is paving the digital bridge isn’t so much in designing solutions that utilize hard-to-acquire hardware & infrastructures, but rather in adding value to the already existing technologies….humble as they may be. My young company and I aim to uplift the continent using technology. Watch this space 🙂

  10. andrewjdupree says:

    Very interesting work you guys are doing. What platform are you developing for? Web browsing and map apps lead me to assume a smartphone like the IDEOS? Do you consider that an “existing technology?” Based on the numbers, I was thinking those would largely still be considered “hard-to-acquire hardware.”

  11. J. Lee says:

    Boy are we all being taken advantage of. I am happy for those in Kenya. But still greed is greed here in America. Thanks for the eye opener. Nice work!

  12. andrewjdupree says:

    Hi Isaac,

    I’ve now been using a Huawei Ideos in Haiti for about 7 months. Perhaps reports of its battery life were overly negative. I can last a few days on a charge if I’m just making calls. Using a data connection does indeed drain the battery much faster. You’ll probably only last a few hours if you’re browsing the internet constantly. So how much overall time you’ll get out of it depends on how you’re using it.

    It certainly is a shame that in order to use the more advanced/useful features of the phone you have to sacrifice battery life. Maybe I’ll have to do some research into getting a more power efficient mobile data connection.