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Matter of Life & Tech

Turning dumbphones to smartphones

About the author

Clark is the technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and US public radio co-production. For the past seven years, he has also hosted The World's Technology Podcast, a weekly audio offering that spins the globe in search of the latest and greatest in technology stories. He tweets at @worldstechpod and can be found on Facebook.

(Copyright: SPL/Getty Images)

(Copyright: SPL/Getty Images)

A host of technologies promise to upgrade older, simpler handsets to give them the functionality of their more powerful, hi-tech cousins.

"I'm not a mobile phone guy," says Guy Kamgaing with a chuckle. It is a strange thing to say, particularly when you consider he is the CEO of a company that makes software for mobile phones. But unlike many other CEOs of mobile firms, the Cameroonian entrepreneur does not obsess over the latest iPhone or the next software update for Android.

He is much more interested in the kind of phones that fell out of vogue when smartphones arrived; an interest sparked on business trips throughout` Africa. 

"There were lines outside of cyber-cafes telling me that people wanted to get on the internet," Kamgaing says. "But they didn't have computers at home, or at the office." What they did have, he says, were cell phones. Not high-end smartphones, but handsets designed to do the basics, mostly voice and SMS.

"The only way demand for internet access could be met was through these basic phones," says Kamgaing. "And I asked myself, 'What if we could create something that would enable a low-end device to access digital content?'"

And that's how Mobile-XL came to be. To all intents and purposes the free software is a web browser that sits comfortably on most lower-end, handsets that run Java.  It allows a user to access all different types of information that he or she might find online. For example, you can use Facebook, check email, play Sudoku and even download music.

But Mobile-XL is far from being your typical mobile web browser. It is built to work entirely via SMS. The app essentially offers the user a set of browsable categories. Let's say you wanted to check the score in a football match. You navigate to that category, and find your team. But when you click, instead of sending you to a web page, the request is transmitted back as an SMS. Just a few seconds later, you get a response with the score, again in the form of an SMS, that the app reads and presents to you on your handset.

You get the information you're looking for, but most importantly, you are not charged for downloading masses of data. The only cost is sending and receiving a text message, substantially cheaper than paying for data in most parts of the world.

"From the end user's perspective, it's basically the same kind of experience you get with a browser," says Kamgaing. "But we're trying to offer very local content. We aggregate job listings, local sports, classifieds, even stuff that's not really on the internet yet. In Kenya, we realized that agricultural prices were important, so we created that category for that market."

Mobile-XL has done pilot projects in Cameroon and Ghana as well, and is about to launch in India. The company is also looking to go into Brazil and Mexico in the near future. It makes it money, for now, through SMS revenue sharing deals with mobile operators. Kamgaing says ads will come later, "when we have more eyeballs".

Book club

But Kamgaing and Mobile-XL are not without competition when it comes to lightweight mobile browsers. And for good reason.

"The market is huge," says Gour Lentell, the Zimbabwe-born, Sydney-based co-founder of a company called biNu. "There are around five billion mobile users in the world today, and more than four billion of them are non smart-phone users. And yet, the mobile forms their only and primary means of accessing the internet. Many of those people will go to extraordinary lengths to have internet access from their mobile devices."

Lentell and his business partner, Dave Turner, got the idea for biNu when they came across a piece of intellectual property a few years ago. "It was just a prototype," says Lentell, "but it was designed to optimize the delivery of data services over wireless networks to mobile devices." Lentell and Turner acquired the technology, and began building on it.

The two launched biNu in 2010, offering low-end phone users "a radically different" browsing experience. The company claims that with biNu, webpages can load much faster than on a smartphone, and use far less bandwidth. How? Simple, really. Most of the processing is not done on the phone, but in the cloud.

"We virtualize the smartphone experience on our cloud-based platform. We do all the processing, right down to fonts and graphics, in the cloud and then transfer that efficiently to the phone to be displayed."

It is a similar trick used by other browsers, such as Opera Mini, Skyfire, UC Browser and Bolt. And it is one, Lentell that says, can translate into smaller data usage bills for the user as unnecessary information is not downloaded to the phone.

Like Mobile-XL, biNu is a stand-alone application that can be downloaded for free. Within the biNu platform, users find links to popular sites such as Facebook, Gmail and the like. It is comparable to another application known as Snaptu, that gathered nearly 80 million users before it was bought by Facebook in 2011 and redesigned as the Facebook For Every Phone app.

Lentell says that he sees the attraction of the technology to a company like Facebook – a lot of his users use the social network through his app, particularly the messaging function, which he says replaces SMS in a lot of cases. But, he says, there is a demand for other services.

"Wikipedia, Google Search and Google Translate are used widely across our various markets,” he says.

Another popular service is biNu Books, which the company is working on in conjunction with a non-profit called Worldreader. For the past few years, Worldreader has been distributing e-readers to kids in the developing world. The readers come pre-loaded with reference materials, local textbooks and classics of world literature that are in the public domain.

Worldreader's e-reader program has been popular, but "the fact that mobile penetration is so high in most parts of the developing world - and growing fast - has driven us to looking into the possibility of using mobile phones to deliver more books to more folks," says the organisation’s Elizabeth Wood.

"But until now, the technology hasn't been there for the feature phone. Books on iPhones are great, but the people we are trying to reach don't have iPhones. They have $20 Nokias."

So Worldreader and biNu teamed up to make a reader for low-end phones. "The advantage of a phone app," says Wood, "is that it's a library in your pocket on a device you already have." They hope that with biNu's help, they'll have one million users by the end of next year.

Right now, both biNu and Mobile-XL are tapping into markets hungry for a low-cost, efficient and reliable way to access the internet in ways that many of us in the developed world take for granted. But will that change as more of the world gets connected via 3G and even 4G systems?

Both Lentell and Kamgaing do not think a switch-over like that is going to happen overnight. Lentell points to the fact that a large portion of downloads come from the US, suggesting a demand even in mature markets, whilst Kamgaing says he sees a “long future” for voice and SMS in emerging markets.

“I think that's why you have to decide to give people some basic tools, instead of expecting them to buy smartphones and iPhones," he says.

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