Facebook for Every Phone and its impact on the developing world

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

The mobile revolution in Africa is well documented, however mobile statistics are specifically impressive in the BRIC Nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China – as well as the likes of Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines. Many emerging markets have skipped the ‘desktop generation’ and are already mobile-first economies where mobile devices are more ubiquitous than either land-line telephones, PCs, or fixed Internet connections. Although research suggests that global smartphone shipments have overtaken those of feature phones recently, it is still the basic feature phone that dominates in emerging markets. Facebook has been quietly working on a project over the last 2 years to expand its user base of 1.1 billion and enable Facebook access on simple, feature phones.

The scheme is called ‘Facebook for Every Phone‘ and has reached 100m users. The stripped-down, minimum capacity version of Facebook is accessed through over 3,000 types of feature phone, some costing less than 20 dollars. Working with mobile operators, Facebook has encouraged them to allow users free or cheap access to this basic version of their product.

Why is Facebook doing this?

Although markets such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, India, Mexico and Vietnam are not currently lucrative advertising markets for the internet giant, they are some of the fastest growing markets for internet access and social networking, and Facebook is clearly eyeing up its next generation of customers and the potential ad revenue these markets will bring.

As Facebook subscription in the likes of the US reaches saturation point, many people see the next generation of customers from the developing world as Facebook’s greatest opportunity to increase its global market share. Although Facebook’s success in the mobile advertising market has been well documented, it is still like many struggling with the seismic shift in internet access from the PC to mobile devices. As the economies of emerging markets grow and its consumer class demands access to the same products and services as the developing world, they represent a lucrative market for the likes of Facebook. Indeed, research suggests that users who access the product through a feature phone are the most engaged users, representing another opportunity for advertisers. As the middle class in the developing world grows, so do their purse strings and Facebook is fully aware of this.

Snaptu

Facebook purchased an Israeli company called Snaptu, that had begun to produce basic versions of applications to allow users to access them on feature phones. Facebook, having originally discounted mobile Facebook access as simply a way to update a status as opposed to the full service, saw a massive opportunity here. The Snaptu team began to re-engineer Facebook’s software to reduce its capacity and allow it to run off minimal data requirements. Facebook for Every Phone includes all the phones most popular features, including News Feed, Messenger and Photos, and is optimized to use less data than other Java apps and mobile sites.

Despite the obvious benefits access to Facebook brings many people in the developing world, there is a danger that users see Facebook as the entire internet, instead of just a small part of it. As powerful internet giants such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google continue to see emerging markets as a priority, there should be a limit to their influence allowing home-grown developers and mobile applications to launch and thrive in the developing world.

Mobile as a tool for empowerment

Samsung M7500 Night Effect mobile phone

Samsung M7500 Night Effect mobile phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a week when Samsung released record quarterly sales data and continues to jostle for position with Apple at the top of the smartphone manufacturer tree, it is important to highlight how mobile technological developments help people in the developing world. Innovation in mobile, for many of us, means the latest smartphone but for people in the developing world a simple feature phone can be a game changer from an educational perspective as well as a tool for empowerment and economic progress.

Although a recent report from IDC  highlighted the fact that global smartphone shipments have overtaken those of feature phones for the first time, the feature phone remains the dominant device in the developing world. In Africa specifically, there are just 15 million feature phones for the continent’s 500 million phones. Feature phones still remain the lifeblood for many people in the developing world.

The Mobile and ICT Sector is bringing development in all sectors in Africa, whether that be agriculture, healthcare or education, and is also revolutionising the business world. Allafrica.com recently quoted Felchesmi Mramba, manager of Tanzania’s electricity provider TANESCO, as saying that technology has simplified things from paying the bill to meter readings – which can all be handled via mobile phone and the internet.

“Even now as I am here in Germany, I can purchase electricity for my home. This is a real revolution on the technological side”

African developers have also made it through to the semi-finals of the annual Ericsson Application Awards. TeamKenya developed an application that enables electorates to find out about and interact with political aspirants in their area, and to learn about laws and keep track of electoral events. Team Nimdee (Ghana) developed an application that allows merchants in Africa to access bigger markets on the continent and global market, whilst enabling them to reach their customers on the same platform.

 

Despite these success stories, the mobile industry does however still face many challenges, with recent coverage from the Guardian highlighting the fact that Samsung had admitted that its phones may contain tin from an area mined by children in Indonesia. There are clearly issues over Samsung’s supply chain and it is important for the world’s best-selling smartphone manufacturer to investigate how are they are supporting an industry that depends on child labour. Issues also remain over access to phones and all the potential benefits they can bring. Much of this blog has focused on the likes of Kenya being a real trailblazer but there are of course countries, like Malawi, lagging behind in terms of access to mobiles. It is important to ensure that people aren’t left behind, and governments in the developing world should facilitate access as much as possible

Will basic smartphones open up the developing world?

Nokia 6020

Nokia 6020 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the latest smartphone becomes the de facto requirement for Mobile users in Europe and the US, it would be pretty easy to think the smartphone is the dominant phone throughout the world. Think again. While the UK and US struggle under mountains of debt and an uncertain economic future, parts of the developing world are making huge strides in connectivity and communication being driven by, you guessed it, the good old feature phone.

In India, mobile adoption is high in both towns and cities and offers a way of reaching parts of the country that are normally untouched. Indeed, Indians spend more time on their mobile device than on any other medium. Yes, this does mean opportunities for advertisers however examples of how mobile can advance peoples’ every days lives are plentiful. Recently, a funny telephone game has gone viral in Pakistan which allows illiterate and poorly-educated people to find out about jobs and telephone-based services. In Africa, Mobile devices are being used to warn people of floods, natural disasters and outbreaks of diseases that could affect both people and livestock. Kenya’s iCow offers farmers the opportunity to register their cow through a text and receive regular updates on gestation periods and when cows are most likely to mate. M-PESA, originally launched in Africa and newly launched in parts of India, gives the “unbanked” access to mobile banking services. This cheap, mass-communication device will continue to help people throughout the developing world.

It is the feature phone not the smartphone, that is driving this and global shipments of feature phones still far outstrip smartphones. The latest Android or Apple device is far too expensive for the majority of people in developing countries, and cheaper alternatives offer the basic services that people require. As mobile shipments continue to steer towards the developing world, we are likely to see companies turn their attention that way and come up with cheaper alternatives. Although there will always be an aspirational facet to owning a premium smartphone, and countries with burgeoning middle classes such as India and China will drive this, the large tech companies will need to produce cheaper alternatives to increase their uptake.