India: How Feature Phone Apps Thrive in Emerging Markets… Now Spurred on by Romances!

Kathryn Cave discusses biNu (now in partnership with Mills and Boon), the importance of feature phone apps and how these could be a virtually untapped opportunity for developers who want to attract truly global audiences.

"'And if I refuse to marry you?' Although she did her best not to allow her feelings to show, she was conscious of the fact that her voice trembled slightly. Max looked at her. 'I think you know the answer to your own question.'"

Mocked, derided and lampooned, the text above could only come from one source. Yes, this is straight from the opening paragraph of a Mills and Boon, courtesy of Harlequin UK Ltd. Of course it is extremely easy to criticise, yet Mills and Boons are phenomenally popular, boasting 3.2 million readers in the UK and 50 million worldwide.

These books have a truly global appeal. They are read in 100-plus countries and available in 24 languages from Japanese to Finnish, Mandarin to Turkish. And after the UK, US and Canada, the largest market is India. Now biNu, an organisation that makes apps for feature phones has signed a partnership with Harlequin, making over 8700 titles available for purchase… directly onto non-smartphones.

Feature phones – handsets which have, at the very most, basic GPS, camera, MP3 player and limited internet access - are the norm in emerging regions.  Data from BuzzCity (based on 300m clickthroughs from mobile phone adverts) shows that 77% of the Indian phone-using population are still using a feature phone. This rises to 88% in Kenya and 89% in Nigeria and is pretty much standard in low-bandwidth areas, making feature phone apps a really smart move for developers who want to target large global audiences. It also renders biNu an extremely interesting company… and its partnership with Harlequin a potentially savvy move.

Founded in Australia with offices in Zimbabwe, biNu has solved the bandwidth issue in emerging regions and provides 3G speeds to 2G feature phones. Last August it raised $2 million from Eric Schmidt’s Tomorrow Ventures, followed by a further $4.3 million in November from various investors including 500 Startups and PanAfrican Investment Co. Hamish McKenzie has written extensively about this for Pando Daily and stated in an article at the end of last month, “recent side by side comparisons showed that a Google search via biNu was sometimes faster than the same search performed on an iPhone or Android device.”

biNu is not the only company  making apps for non-smartphones however. The BBC ran a fantastic article on Tuesday entitled: ‘Market for feature phone apps is low-tech goldmine’.  This quoted Paul Roberts, founder of ForgetMeNot Africa, which has built a platform that allows users to update Facebook via a simple mobile device. He said: "Because of the comparative dearth of apps aimed at this market, there is a better chance of receiving attention." 

Ashley Bolser, director of mobile app development firm Bolser explained the reason for the shortage: "We work in technology [and] we naturally get excited by what's new. We often forget that there is this huge group of people who want to look at the internet and download, and the only access they have to that is through their feature phone." Bolser devised a feature phone version of the BBC's Top Gear news app. This simplifies the data, removes hi-definition photography and any video and has proved particularly successful in Southeast Asia.

However as the BBC explained, whilst there are clear opportunities in these simple apps there are also problems. These include getting people to know the apps exist, physically loading them onto feature phones and organising payment in regions which are not geared-up towards credit cards (emerging markets).  But issues aside, this does appear to be an under-serviced area and as Jon Hoehler, manager of mobile technologies at Deloitte Digital South Africa stressed: “We are in an era of developers obsessing over "bigger, better, faster, more" when it comes to mobile phone apps. You wonder whether "small, simpler, slower, less" might be an equally good mantra.”

Beyond the obsession with having the latest gadgets in the West, it does seem unlikely that feature phones are going to die a death anytime soon… especially in regions where low bandwidth and expensive data make smartphones non-viable. And maybe biNu has the right idea. Perhaps all those ‘chiselled chins’, ‘elegant chignons’ and a global love of romance novels will be the partnership that helps expose the potential…