When BlackBerry CEO John Chen issued an open letter to the US Senate and President Obama, asking for ‘app neutrality’, he faced a lot of flak. Chen’s argument was straightforward – content and application providers (he cited the example of Netflix) refuse to provide applications for BlackBerry OS, preferring to concentrate on the larger customer base of Android and iOS. Chen refers to this as a discriminatory practice which has ‘created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems.’
In a free market, capitalist economy like the USA, it is easy to understand why Chen’s contention has been met with a storm of criticism. It would create more work for developers, require greater investment of time and money, and most importantly, it is against the principles of a free market.
Yet there is a deeper and larger truth behind Chen’s argument. Let’s step away from a world of regulated or enforced ‘app neutrality’ and let’s think of what would happen if developers voluntarily started supporting more platforms.
Let’s take a scenario from India. There is a lot of justifiable buzz and hype around the fast growing smartphone market – IDC announced that with 27% market share growth in Q3 2014, India was the fastest growing smartphone market in Asia Pacific. There are estimated to be 150 million smartphone users in India, and the market share of smartphones has climbed to 32% in 2014.
However, they represent a very small number against the still-large base of feature phone users:
It should be noted that the number of feature phones shipped in Q32014 was nearly double that of smartphones. The GSMA Intelligence Digital Inclusion Report of 2014 points out that smartphones account for less than 10% of total handsets in the emerging markets like India.
It’s one of my favourite sayings that we must be forward looking, yet inclusive at the same time. We need not move forward at the cost of leaving any user segment behind. And given our slogan of Digital India, we certainly should not leave anyone behind. Internet adoption in this country has suffered from an elitist attitude that it was intended for urban, affluent, English speaking Indians. This has caused us to lag hugely behind neighbouring China in growing our internet base. Now, with the rapid growth of mobile, we have a second chance to build a more equitable internet user base. To do this, as developers we simply need to ensure that apps work seamlessly across both feature phones and smartphones. This is a proven formula for success that has been demonstrated by several companies.
South African Chat and networking app Mxit works on 8000+ tablets and phones. It is just a 1.5 MB download but it brings smartphone like functionality to feature phones eg. Recording and sending audio clips, doodling on pictures, and virtual chat rooms. And it operates in 11 Indian languages. Facebook for every phone, works on 3000+ phones and across markets, the company ties up with operators to woo feature phone users with free internet packs for limited periods. Facebook supports 70 plus languages, using community input through the Facebook translations app.
Africa-based cloud specialist company BiNu focusses on feature phone users in emerging markets and has created an application that provides users access to YouTube, Google, Facebook, e-books and more. The company’s product pares down web content, using minimum data to make downloads faster and smoother.
The necessity to support a smooth app experience on feature phones is even higher when we talk of high-risk transactions like mobile banking, mcommerce, e-ticketing etc.
In a market like India, an inclusive approach to app development is neither pure idealism, nor pure business sense – it is a blend of both. It benefits a larger user base, and helps companies to reach out more visibly vs. the overcrowded smartphone app stores. It’s also a great way to build customer loyalty and goodwill!
Phani Bhushan is the founder of Anant Computing. Anant Computing helps companies to create native apps in every Indian language, that run on any feature phone or smartphone. Team Anant firmly believes that true digital inclusion will happen if every citizen of our country has the power of internet and computing at their finger tips. Our vision when we designed Anant was a more digitally inclusive India, where everyone with a mobile phone can both create and access high quality apps ,sans language barriers.