"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".
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.