Ultra-low cost revolution Part 1: Android multi-user and cultural impact

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Ultra-low cost revolution Part 1: Android multi-user and cultural impact
Recently, there were some bits of code found in Android that seem to point to the system allowing for multiple users on a single device. The immediate thought of many (including us) upon hearing that was that it would be great for tablets, but not so much for phones. But the reality is that multiple users would be a huge option for phones, just not in the US or Europe; rather, it would be huge for emerging markets, like Africa and South America. This is an idea that we touched upon before. Back when Google first announced that it was buying Motorola, we came up with an idea for how Google could use the purchase to make cheap or even free handsets for emerging markets like Africa or South America (and you'll notice we've reused the same article image from that, because it really is a great image.) 

The new netizens

When thinking, talking about, and following technology, it's pretty easy to fall into the trap where you only watch the cutting edge devices and products. This sort of thinking tends to put up sort of geographical blinders, because in many places, it's simple unfeasible for many consumers to afford high-end devices. At most, when we think about markets that are growing quickly, we think in terms of smartphones, and so we look to China where smartphone growth is booming. But, the truth is that the real revolution is in places like sub-Saharan Africa and various places in South America. These are areas that are incredibly important, because it's not a transition from dumbphones to smartphones, but so far it has been a transition from no phones to dumbphones. What makes this important is that these are not users that are simply getting better access, these are people getting access to reliable communication and the Internet for the first time. These people haven't been upgrading their Internet experience, they are newly adopted citizens of the 'net. 

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These users have been able to take advantage of relatively old technology like basic SMS to boost productivity incredible degrees, and Google has been on the forefront in building ways for users in these markets can connect better using these older phones. Google has consistent developer challenges, it has seeded various developers in Kenya and Nigeria, built products specifically for those areas like Google Trader, and it has worked to make all of its services SMS-friendly. Most recently Google set up a way to be able to send and receive Gmail messages through SMS. 

Services like this are big, because SMS is the most reliable tool right now for many of those areas, but that could all change with smartphones. Google has proven time and again that it doesn't care about losing money on a product if it means more people get on the Internet. The latest example of that can be found out in Kansas City, where Google has lit up its 1 gigabit Google Fiber Internet service, which offers 5MB down as the free option (after a $300 installation to get the fiber to your house). Or, with the story we've been covering with the launch of the Nexus 7, which is being sold almost at cost both in an effort to get more people to engage with the Google Play Store, but also simply to get more people online, where they see Google ads. 

Getting people online has been one of the top efforts of Google, because more people online means more eyeballs for ads. This is why we always thought that Google would eventually use Motorola to develop a free/ultra-low cost smartphone for emerging markets. But, as we said last time, the number one roadblock to making Android the right option for these markets is to have a proper multiple user option. In many areas, people in villages tend to share one device amongst a number of users, either due to the cost of the device, or simply by custom that these items are communal rather than personal. 

Still, even with a communal device, having options for personal settings and multiple users can be a huge boon. If multiple user functionality does come to Android soon, it wouldn't even need to be Google to do the work to build the ultra-low cost devices, because there are companies with that mission already. 

Ultra-low cost future

The fact of the matter is that ultra-low cost smartphones are going to be the biggest market segment of the next few years at least. This is exactly why Microsoft made a point to build Windows Phone Tango, which can be installed on lower-end devices for emerging markets and can widen the market for Windows Phone by 60%. Android already has a place in those markets, though. These markets are why analysts have predicted smartphone shipments of 1 billion by 2016, and more telling are the predictions for 5 billion mobile data users by 2016. To put that into context, the general prediction is that the world's population in 2016 will be around 7.3 billion. 

So, this means that more people are getting on the Internet and not just on SMS. In China and India, it has been ZTE and Huawei leading the charge of ultra-low cost devices, most of which are running non-Google Android (NGA), or even a Baidu-skinned Android in China. We've been hearing about ZTE and Huawei mostly because the two companies are pushing into the high-end smartphone market, and expanding into North America and Europe, but where these companies are really excelling is in the ultra-low cost market. 

In Africa, the major player is Mi-Fone, which has a number of low-cost "smart feature phones", many of which run the Nucleus real-time operating system (RTOS). Nucleus RTOS is a closed-source embedded system that can be found on over 2 billion devices worldwide, although not all are phones. It's a quite impressive platform designed specifically for extremely low power consumption, USB connectivity, extended storage, and kernel stability. The platform has been solid for a while, but Android has been creeping in to the Mi-Fone lineup, and the lineups of many low-cost manufacturers. 

Cultural revolution

When we were looking into the low-cost phone phenomenon last time, we found that an additional 10 mobile phones (not specifically smartphones) per 100 people in a population can increase the entire nation's GDP by 0.5% annually. This was partially because even with just SMS tools, people in emerging markets could use mobile phones to more easily sell goods through virtual markets, and even invest money through SMS stock trading. So, the beauty of low-cost devices is not just in getting more people online to see Google ads, as would be one of Google's main reasons. There is a far more interesting effect of the Internet to consider, which is the social revolution that tends to take place. 

Despite all of the games and time-wasting possibilities of smartphones, they are essentially communications devices, and the options for communication are exponentially expanded when moving from a feature phone to a smartphone. With a feature phone, you'll have three ways to communicate and connect, at best - phone calls, text messaging, and maybe e-mail. Add in the Internet, and suddenly you have access to social networks which don't just bring you together with people you know, but with people you don't know who share your interests and goals, which can often be a much more profound experience. 

We've all already seen the effects of social networking and mobile phones in political revolutions of the Arab Spring, but we'd rather look at more cultural revolutions. The proliferation of smartphones means not just better ways to connect to each other, but better ways to connect to the Internet, and a demand for different kinds of media. This changes the way content is distributed as well. 

For those of you who didn't know, as far as the amount of films made, the number one country is India (Bollywood), and the United States (Hollywood) is actually third, behind Nigeria (Nollywood). While Hollywood has been fighting against the Internet and its paradigm-busting distribution methods, that isn't the case in other areas. In Nigeria, the major telecom provider MTN has been actively promoting distribution via mobile.

MTN, which is the largest African mobile telecom provider covering 21 countries, started a new initiative last year called MTN Afronolly. This initiative is aiming to promote local content to new mobile customers. Nigeria has one of the fastest growing smartphone user-bases in any country in the world, and with smartphones comes faster web access and demand for more content. By promoting and distributing content via mobile in-country, MTN is making it easier and easier for those who love Nollywood cinema to access it. And, of course, that is just the first step, because once the content is available, the next step is to make it easy to share, and with the Internet, sharing is caring. Shared content can quickly move beyond the borders of a country, and give filmmakers better visibility on a global scale when they would normally have at best a niche audience outside of their own country. 


Film and Nollywood are obviously just one facet to this whole puzzle, sharing obviously encompasses and promotes all of the arts - music, prose, painting/photography/visual - and makes the dissemination of information much faster. The point is that mobile is exploding worldwide, which is giving people brand new ways to communicate, connect, and share. Many companies don't want to be left out of this equation. Microsoft has made its move with Tango, and Google has been constantly working towards having options for emerging markets. Google just recently launched YouTube in Senegal, and is constantly expanding services. With more smartphones on the way, many of which will be running Android. Even without Google Apps installed on those devices, Google has been conscious to push its services in these new markets. 

Whether or not Google is the one building the devices with the help of its newly-acquired Motorola is an interesting idea to consider, but simply adding features to Android like multiple user profiles would go a long way to gaining even more of a foothold in these fast-growing areas. And, once people are using Android, even NGA, the transition is that much easier to start pushing Google Android devices. Of course, to really make a push in these areas, Google would have to add user profile support on all legacy systems as well, because Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean don't allow for use on ultra-low cost devices, so that would be the real sign of Google's intentions. Multiple user profiles only for the newest Android wouldn't help too much, but given Android's openness, it could lead to back-ports of the feature. 

Ultra-low cost devices are the biggest segment that no one talks about, but that doesn't mean that the companies providing the platforms aren't planning for them. If the predictions are right, the next few years should be huge for smartphones in emerging markets. And, the proliferation of smartphones and faster Internet connections could spur a global culture explosion from the easy sharing of local content across the globe. But, while older Android systems and Windows Phone 7.5 can work on ultra-low cost handsets, the newer versions of each platform will not. So, the question remains for next time: what platform will lead the ultra-low cost revolution?

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