Fancy freshly brewed coffee in the morning, but don’t like the inconvenience of getting out of bed? Then you might want to get your hands on the wi-fi enabled coffee maker from chip-maker Qualcomm, which allows you to drip start your brew from your phone or tablet. Perhaps you have an errant cat that you need to keep tabs on? In which case the Tagg pet tracker is for you. Or how about a walking cane with built in GPS, Bluetooth and health monitoring sensors?
All this – and more – was on offer at this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Billed as “the world’s premier mobile industry event”, it packed more than 70,000 people amidst row upon row of shiny new products. Alongside the more curious “innovations” was the usual barrage of high-definition screens, feature-packed smartphones and hybrid “phablets”, with matching marketing superlatives. All in all, it was everything you might expect from a sector that has generated more than $1.6 trillion since last year’s show.
Yet, for some, there remained something underwhelming about the jamboree: a lack of headline-grabbing devices and surprises. Such is the nature of a maturing, highly competitive industry. Developments at the forefront of the today’s mobile market tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, whether they are linked to the coffee pot or not. For ordinary consumers, a point is rapidly approaching at which every device does almost everything they care about. All of which begs a question: where does real innovation lie in the vast global mobile market – and where should we look if we hope to understand its future?
For me, the answers are bound up with perhaps the most intriguing product released in Barcelona boasted neither a touchscreen, nor a camera, nor apps, nor social networking. Yours for a princely 15 Euros, the phone in question was the Nokia 105 – successor to the 100-million-unit-selling 1280 model, and arguably the world’s most affordable hunk of personal communications technology.
Nokia’s new entry-level creation comes complete with a colour screen, FM radio, dual band reception, a selection of pre-loaded games, and (somewhat bizarrely) a speaking clock. More significantly, it also boasts 12.5 hours of talk time and 35 days of standby, an integrated flashlight, and a plastic case resistant to dust and water spillage. All of which mark it out as a tool aimed at the rapidly-expanding lower end of the global market, where concerns tend not to be so much app availability as accessing electrical power.
As Nokia themselves put it, “around 2.7 billion people around the world are yet to buy their first mobile, mainly due to financial restraints”. For those who may not have access to running water or paved roads, let alone mains electricity or wired internet, a mobile phone can make a critical difference to everything from employment to education, and from banking to access to healthcare.
Little wonder that there are now more mobiles in Africa than in either Europe or America, or that they’re the continent’s fastest-growing technology. According to the World Bank, information technology led by mobile phones was directly involved in creating 5 million African jobs in 2012, and contributed 7% of the continent’s GDP – a far higher proportion than the global average, thanks to phones offering access to services like finance, newspapers and healthcare which in other countries are provided through older “legacy” communications channels.
What’s perhaps most intriguing about the Nokia 105, however, is that it won’t simply be sold in developing markets. Rather, it’s also set for release across Europe, the Middle East and Asia – where its month-long battery life should make it a popular backup phone, or even a backup of a backup, to be kept charged in a drawer or glove compartment for when all else fails.