23 November 2018

Africa: Kaios Helps a Low-Cost Featurephone Become a Smartphone - Launching in Africa With Orange and MTN

London — Getting more people in Africa into the data future involves a tangled knot of problems that includes data prices, handset costs and last but not least changes in behavior. Russell Southwood spoke to Sebastien Codeville, KaiOS about its pioneering, low data consumption OS that turns a low-cost featurephone into a smartphone.

KaiOS is a featurephone operating system based on Firefox Gecko that turns a featurephone into a smartphone operated with the navigator keys. It has become the second most popular mobile OS in India, taking 15% market share. Google has invested US$22 million in KaiOS and it has recently signed with both MTN and Orange to roll-out in Sub-Saharan Africa in Q1, 2019.

The people behind KaiOS originally were working with a handset vendor on a project for TCL Communication in the USA:"Some US operators were re-farming frequencies for 4G so were stopping doing 2G. It started with using the Firefox OS. While doing it, we decided to spin off the project to get a wider range of vendor deals and different partnerships".

The whole KaiOS platform is based on HTML 5 and which it claims makes it easy to deliver content for the platform. It's a follow on from Gecko and it's an extended standard web API. The African version of the phone will offer: Wi-Fi and 3G (a 4G version follows later); GPS for navigation; Google Assistant; a KaiStore for popular international apps and local content; two cameras; long battery life (2000mah); and dual SIM support. It currently works with 20-30 OEMs or ODMs.

"There are differences in memory and data consumption so it has to fit a smaller memory and have lower data consumption. We also worked a lot on battery consumption and limited the number of tasks working on the device".

The apps in the KaiStore vary depending on which country the phone is operated:"When we started shipping to India there were 50 Android apps in the store. The objective is to address the needs of a specific category of users".

Thus far there are 50 million active KaiOS devices "although we have shipped more than that number. The vast majority are currently in India as it is the first large-scale emerging market and the other reason for going there is that it is a single market".

MTN intends to start by rolling it out in South Africa and Nigeria and has other countries under review. Orange says it will roll-out across all of its territories in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The handset is also designed to be at the lowest possible price point for a device of this kind:"There are different types of devices built on KaiOS. In India, they are taking a R1500 (US$21.19) deposit rather than having a selling price and the user can be refunded after 2-3 years. But the device in India is different as it has 4G and additional features. The landing price (for the Africa phone) is US$20-25 plus taxes".

So what are Indian users doing with their KaiOS powered phones?:"Quite some interesting things. There's also third party app providers. Google Apps (inc search, maps, YouTube and its voice assistant) launched this year. The number of users increased six-fold afterwards. There's high usage of both Google apps and Facebook."

"The new users who had never accessed the internet before started to use it. Within four weeks, they were using as much data as the national average. Clearly the benefit for the user is there".

So what are the essential apps used on KaiOS-enabled phones in India:"Firstly, streaming apps for video content and secondly, Voice Assistant. Below that there's a second tier of apps that includes music streaming, search and other types of services". For video streaming, operators in India do content + data bundles that allow users to limit their data consumption. For example, there's a TV-specific plan to watch programmes.

So what advice does he have for the Africa roll-out?:We're sharing our learnings with operators. They are already looking closely at what's happening in India, especially with Jio running primarily as a data operator. Operators in Africa need to pick what is relevant for their market. In Africa, we're adding mobile payment because it's present everywhere and there are specific plans from the operators".

It's already in discussions with other operators in Africa and the Middle East and Codeville is emphatic that:"These are our strategic markets for 2019. We want to be in as many markets as possible and to work with content providers in different markets. For example, in Nigeria we're working towards providing Nollywood content and apps. We want to engage with more local partners. Being localized is the key to success. We want to drive the ecosystem".

The research has uncovered that whilst the DTT process has been, and for the majority of countries still is being, a complex project there are expected to be significant developments over the next 24 months. In fact, we're predicting that an additional 83 million African households will have access. The report is priced at £1850, however, until the end of the year, we'd be happy to offer you a 25% discount from that, which would reduce the price to £1385.

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