mobile-os
Mobile Communications

The OS that knows no name is at large across Africa

This is a contributed piece from Marco Veremis, Upstream CEO

Social media titans like Facebook and Twitter are reaching saturation point in western markets, with their user base growth in the US slowing down significantly in recent years. Growth markets like Africa, Latin America and India are a key focus point for brands looking to maintain healthy expansion, as the so-called ‘next billion’ smartphone users currently lie dormant in these markets. Capturing these consumers as they become active users of digital content will be important for brands in their quest to maintain a positive growth trajectory.

A fundamentally different approach is needed when trying to break into growth markets, where consumers are often not only ‘mobile first’ but ‘mobile only’. This means that a mobile is the first and usually sole device via which users access the internet.  Africa for example accounts for less than 0.5% of fixed broadband subscriptions globally. This could initially suggest that internet use in Africa is low, however that is not the case: 70% of Sub-Saharan Africans access the internet on their phones. The mobile is therefore a critical tool in facilitating internet access within growth markets.  

The mobile OS landscape within emerging markets is an interesting one. In Africa for example, Google’s Android OS is the most popular amongst smartphones, accounting for over 40% of the mobile market share. At other end of the mobile device spectrum, there are basic feature phones which run Nokia’s own ‘series 40’ OS, the second most popular OS within Africa.  The third most used OS is ‘unknown’, accounting for 10% of the Africa mobile market. Devices running unknown OSs are believed to consist largely of Chinese-made handsets, designed to look like the latest handsets from Samsung, Apple or other top tech brands.

These devices (sometimes called ‘data phones’) offer the user many of the features we have come to expect from smartphones – they have large touch screens, cameras and have internet access – but they are still comparatively limited in what they can offer the user. They are built using cheap hardware, but more importantly, they are difficult to develop content for; users can’t for example, access apps and digital content from app stores. 

Brands therefore need to carefully consider how they can target consumers using such phones. Facebook is moving in the right direction, having quietly re-released the Facebook Lite app within emerging markets. Mark Zuckerberg has also recently been promoting Internet.org, which aims to bring cost-free access to major internet services for free. Cleverly, Facebook is offering not only an Android app for Internet.org but also access to its platform through Opera and UCWeb browsers. This therefore opens up the possibility of users on data phones (on an unknown OS) accessing Facebook content. It’s a good example of a company localising their approach to suit a certain market, and it will broaden the company’s reach within what was traditionally an inaccessible audience.   

A further consideration is how these users are expected to pay for content on their phones. Unknown OS users will often not have chosen a smartphone for financial reasons.  Credit card penetration is understandably still extremely low, (somewhere near 70% of the population of Africa does not have bank accounts or credit cards) and so a traditional app store model limits content distribution to a small but affluent segment of consumers who are able to create their own account. However the success of M-Pesa in Kenya shows that mobile payments can work and that trust in network providers to securely transfer funds is high. As network operators already have systems in place to take payments for call plans, they are ideally positioned to facilitate payments for digital content sent to mobile devices.

Brands must keep an open mind when it comes to content distribution in growth markets. With such a large portion of the market outside of mainstream app distribution channels, brands need to take a different approach if they are to increase access to their services.

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