I love to make things as simple and as concise as possible. The world may be turning to smartphones, but emerging markets are not embracing smartphones that eagerly. Reasons: cost and infrastructure are at the front of everything else. As such, unless we have smartphones that deal with those two issues, feature phones are not disappearing soon. There is a lot of hype about smartphones among developers in general, and those in emerging markets are swallowing it all, ignoring the specifics of their markets.
Thankfully, a global service like Facebook sees the issues and have addressed it head on: In 2011, they purchased Snaptu, a basic java social networking app for feature phones and converted it to a Facebook app for feature phones. Facebook mobile for java is said to be “five to 10 times more efficient than Facebook’s smartphone apps”. From The New York Times, is a good summary of what happened:
The team had to re-engineer Facebook’s software to drastically shrink the amount of data sent over slow cellular networks. They also had to find a way to quickly display familiar Facebook features like chat and photos on phones with very basic computing power and low-resolution screens.
In effect, on an app level, Facebook addressed the very issues I highlighted in advocating for a first world smartphone for third world mobile networks.
Are there any lessons for developers targeting emerging markets? I would suppose so. Developers and service providers who want the numbers in emerging markets need to think along the same lines that Facebook are thinking and acting. For example, Nigeria with a population of over 150 million people, has just about 4 million smartphones in use. Do the math. However, if a developer’s goal is to target a niche, then pushing smartphone apps works just fine.
The article, For Developing World, a Streamlined Facebook, is a good read on how Facebook gained a strong foothold in emerging markets.