$80 Android Phone Sells Like Hotcakes in Kenya, the World Next?

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Hwawei's IDEOS smartphone is making waves in Kenya. Where else will Android phones leave their mark?

It seems like just yesterday when only the slickest kid on the block had a smartphone, but now, this revolutionary gadget is selling like hotcakes in the developing world. Earlier this year, the Chinese firm Huawei unveiled IDEOS through Kenya’s telecom titan, Safaricom. So far, this $80 smartphone has found its way into the hands of 350,000+ Kenyans, an impressive sales number in a country where 40% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. The IDEOS's success in this market firmly establishes the open source Android as the smartphone of the people and demonstrates how unrelenting upswings in price-performance can jumpstart the spread of liberating technologies. Thanks to low-cost Androids, the geographically-untethered smartphone is here to stay, and it simply cannot be stopped.

So how did Huawei ride the demand curve below the golden price point, bringing an Android phone within the financial reach of thousands of Kenyans? Alongside the falling cost of all microelectronics, it appears that Huawei was able to lower the price by using less powerful hardware.

IBM Simon (left) and Huawei IDEOS (right). Smartphones are getting more powerful, and now they're going all over the world.

Let’s compare the IDEOS to more familiar smartphones so you can fathom the $80 price tag. A cursory search of BestBuy.com reveals the gamut of devices from Apple, Motorola, and Blackberry. While IDEOS really doesn’t sport any deal-breaking technical disadvantages (see table), the RAM is half that of the big boys. Also, IDEOS users have been lamenting about the device’s fleeting battery life on tech forums. An incessant need for recharging could present problems for IDEOS users in remote areas, where hunts for a power outlet may yield disappointing results. In fact, to address this concern, Safaricom had to post a “how-to” on reducing power usage. Despite these hiccups, the functionality is still there, and at end of the day, it’s an Android phone with 300,000+ apps. Besides, what’s important isn’t the phone’s tech specs, it’s the affordability.

Now that hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have jumped on the Android bandwagon, it's clear that affordability goes a long way. However, the IDEOS's stellar sales performance in a developing nation hints at a larger phenomenon -  the international competitive edge of Android-capable, low-end smartphones. This is facilitated by two key advantages: diversity in phone manufacturers and region-specific applications, both catalyzed by Android's open source philosophy. Unlike Apple and Blackberry, everyone and their grandmother can legitimately build and sell an Android phone, as long as they have the proper know-how and paperwork, of course. This widens the playing field, and manufacturers that target a wide range of consumers, from the Japanese businessman to the Ugandan farmer, can step up to the plate. This includes Huawei and other Chinese tech firms that have been targeting African markets.

In light of Android's international success, I bet Apple is chomping at the bit. But could they ever realistically overcome Android in developing markets? While Apple is nudging into the low-cost realm with its own price accessible smartphone, it will likely cost around $350, a far cry from IDEOS. I'd like to see how Apple would react if a Chinese firm started selling their own inexpensive version of the iPhone. But what about the "little guys"? Although Windows and Nokia encourage the adoption of their operating systems, frankly, these OS's have either fallen from grace or have failed to get off the ground. Among these players, it seems Android is best equipped for a global presence, whereas Apple and the others probably won't fall far from the high-end tree unless they re-calibrate their strategies. There's enormous potential for low-end phones in developing markets, and Android is taking charge.

So what does open source mean for developers? More flexibility. If app-gurus are free to program without rigid, Apple-like standardization, then they're better able to tailor the Android to the needs of their communities. The Android app business is a tough one, but keeping in mind that the smartphone is Africa's laptop killer, it's also one of the most exciting platforms for the continent's developers.

Case in point. An entrepreneurial conference in Nairobi called Pivot25 showcased some of the most innovative Android apps in East Africa. Among these include M-Farm, an app that allows farmers to broadcast product prices and locations to the world via SMS. Another agri-app developed by Makerere University helps diagnose and track the spread of crop diseases via crowdsourcing. In a nation where agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of GDP, apps like these could prove invaluable in maximizing harvests and facilitating the spread of precision farming.

Smartphones could enhance practices in agriculture, a crucial sector of many developing economies.

While agri-apps are well-suited for the developing economies, the winner of Pivot25 was Medkenya. It’s the functional equivalent to WebMD in that it puts a library of health information at the user’s fingertips and performs other helpful tasks like guiding the ill to hospitals. However,  I have a hunch that this is just the beginning of healthcare-related apps in Africa. We’ve seen smartphones adopt all kinds of medical technology, from digital stethoscopes to cancer diagnosis, and I'm hopeful that we’ll see similarly stunning med-tech reach even the remotest areas one day. An app that tracks mosquito outbreaks or a smartphone with an HIV-testing peripheral would work wonders to address persisting healthcare challenges of the developing world. Who knows? Maybe one day they’ll be able to carry a doctor around in their pocket.

From agriculture to healthcare, from disaster response to business, the smartphone is quickly morphing into an indispensable tool of the information age. They're much more than neat gizmos that help American suburbanites pay for their coffee. This sentiment was best captured by Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Kenya's Minister of Information and Communication, after IDEOS's debut.

Screenshot of Pivot25 winner, MedKenya

In the beginning of the 21st century, the mobile telephone was the reserve of an elite few and the gadget's sole purpose was to make phone calls and send text messages. Today, all this has changed and the mobile phone is no longer a luxury but a necessity. By morphing and adopting into various aspects of our lives, the mobile phone has gone beyond its original purpose of phone calls and text messages and it now serves as a bank, a computer a radio and a television set among other things. In a nutshell, it has penetrated every aspect of our lives.

The smartphone is the exemplar of a truly liberating device, and thanks to Android and Huawei, it has the potential to reach virtually untapped markets. Now that the same operating system enjoyed by the techies of wealthy countries is more accessible to citizens of developing nations, "the people's smartphone" could uplift small businesses, farmers, and the sick in ways we can't even imagine. I'm not saying low-end Androids will solve all the world's problems, but I believe that technology, be it stem cells or mobile devices, has the inherent capacity to ease humanity's burdens. As we ride the price-performance curve to the asymptotic minimum, I long for the day that anyone can access Android-like technology for pennies. That day may never arrive, but the $80 IDEOS shows that we're moving in the right direction.

[Image Credits: 1. Phone - Flickr - John Karakatsanis, Girl - Wylio (modified); 2. Microsoft Research - Buxton Collection, Huawei (modified); 3. Wylio; 4. Shimba Technologies]

[Sources:  Technology Review, Huawei Press Release, Internet World Statistics, mobiThinking]


Discussion — 11 Responses

  • chopinzman August 16, 2011 on 1:33 pm

    Good, maybe if the impoverished multitudes in Africa, those subject to genocide, have access to internet, we won’t be able to ignore them as easily. I know that internet etc. has been available there for quite a while, but this might create sufficient momentum for them to fight oppression. What a powerful tool this is. I hope they never succeed using censorship here in the west.

    • Eric Kiboi chopinzman September 18, 2013 on 5:37 am

      IMPROVERISHED MULTITUDES IN AFRICA?????? I hope you the privileged white guy has invented something substantial and not riding in your race’s achievements. Grown up, everyone is past the stereotype.

  • blacksmith_tb August 16, 2011 on 3:02 pm

    I think a better comparison would be the LG Optimus V, which is now about $120 USD without a contract (obviously, that’s still 50% more expensive than the Huawei, but it isn’t 1000% like the iPhone).

    • abhishek991 blacksmith_tb May 19, 2012 on 9:50 am

      The Lg optimus GT540 still costs over 200 USD here in my country. I don’t know when this android stuff would go cheaper in future.

  • mattkrueger August 16, 2011 on 9:18 pm

    Agree with the first comment — the comparisons you’re making above are not relevant. It’s much more accurate to compare the Ideos to other very cheap, low-end Android phones also available elsewhere.

    Also, it’s very important to note that Safaricom (the MNO offering the Ideos) is likely subsidizing the Ideos, perhaps substantially. That’s been great for Kenyans and adoption but it’s important to note that Huawei is not yet to the point of being able to sell a phone through the channel (with all associated mark-ups) at $80.

    Thankfully it’s unlocked and it really is a great phone for the price!

    • Alan mattkrueger August 17, 2011 on 4:41 am

      @mattkrueger yeah! Being SIM unlocked and having open bootloaders is really fun for hacking :). It’s a solid device.

      Also, not mentioned in the article, the phone comes with quite a number of perks, including 1000 shillings of airtime, 600 MB of data, and a 2 GB SD card. The price is more like $60 when you consider all that stuff in!

  • John Sun January 20, 2013 on 3:49 am

    I’ll wait till price will drop to $20.

    $80 is too much for smartphone.

    • Sn Bae John Sun May 2, 2013 on 5:39 am

      Don’t be a Cheap ass

    • Mark Penrice John Sun June 10, 2013 on 5:29 am

      Cripes, I’m an inveterate penny-pincher and even I think you’re taking that a bit far. $20 won’t even get you the battery and mSD card. You want those AND a phone to put them in?

  • Mark Penrice June 10, 2013 on 5:25 am

    Power usage? Save up for a solar charger and spare battery, and use the device in a sensible, sparing manner instead of spamming facebook updates and playing Angry Birds. Its true value is providing personal computing power, a knowledge repository (including the digital photos) and a connection to the internet to those who might not even have had an 8-digit calculator before (though there’s always the argument that an abacus is actually better if you know how to use it). It’s not going to cause an overnight revolution in quality of life, but it can certainly help accelerate improvements. Knowledge is power.

    One matter not addressed here is screen resolution. Nor whether it’s a capacitative or resistive touch screen. Or the processor power. Or how much flash storage it has. Or what networks it’s able to use, and if it has GPS, Wifi and Bluetooth radios, or an FM receiver. All these things besides (and as well as) the RAM and physical screen size come together to determine the device’s overall usefulness and usability. 256mb is not necessarily a hinderance so long as the core OS is properly optimised and is a bit more ruthless about killing spurious background tasks than my own (576mb?) phone’s version of Android – ditto a slower CPU; software optimisation can go a long way to improving user experience without necessarily needing a hardware upgrade… I know this much from using 8mhz Palmpilots back in the day.

    A small screen also may not be an issue so long as it’s bright, sharp, and has a decent touch sensor; my first smartphones were blackberry-ish Sonys and Nokias that had “proper” keypads/keyboards and small, non-touch screens, but they still performed quite well for basic SP type tasks (mobile internet, picture messaging, social networking, simple but useful mobile apps), and the main thing that crippled them (especially the Nokias) was not poor hardware but horrible, buggy operating system code that they never bothered to patch.

    And certainly, a 3mpx camera rather than an 8mpx one is nothing more than sensible. For the sort of work you might put a phone cam to, 2mpx is generally good enough, and I tend to operate my own phone (HTC Desire S, which offers up to 5m images but I’m pretty sure is only using a 3m CCD) in 1mpx mode to save memory and reduce the cycle time unless I really need the extra resolution for some reason (usually it makes more sense to just use the digital zoom and blow up whatever distant thing I needed to improve the resolution of up to the full frame instead).

  • BigMama August 12, 2013 on 6:18 pm

    It’s possible buy an original model HTC Droid Incredible off ebay for 48 dollars brand new. It’s very similar in specs and appearance to an iPhone 4. They’re even cheaper than this used.

    Backstock of older model droids that are no longer sold retail in America seems more economically advantageous for the third world than manufacturing completely new phones targetted at a low income demographic.