3 billion capable feature phones: why wait for smartphones?

nokia109Rise of the smartphones! More smartphones are in everyone’s pockets. Everyone will be able to share cat videos and argue with strangers (maybe even learn something). However, almost all of what we hope will come from the “smartphone revolution” is actually already possible with the feature phones that people already have in their pockets.  3 billion people already have highly capable Java enabled feature phones vs. 1 billion smartphones there.

There are three types of phones out there, really:

Dumb / basic phones: capable of only SMS, voice calls and USSD (that’s the *# stuff for checking credit and what not).  They’re getting seriously cheap – $10-$30.

Feature phones: these $30+ devices are mostly 1997ish computers that happen to have small screens and the ability to make phone calls and send text messages.  They more often than not have an SD card slot – that $2 SD card has the same space that my $1,500 Fujitsu laptop had in 1997.  They can play audio and video files.  And that’s important in the middle of an isolated village – it’s an affordable source of entertainment.  3 billion of them have Java 2 Micro Edition.  That’s a version of the Java programming language specially designed for small limited capacity devices.  It means – as the Internet cats would say – you can haz appz with dat.  You can do video, audio, quizzes, saving files, mini games, all of it. Not all of them have Java 2 Micro edition – which is a shame, because it makes so much more possible. Some of the lower end models have can do video but not apps.  Some of them run ‘BREW’ for apps that is about as much fun to develop for as it is to develop another hole in your head.

Smartphones: We all know what that is – Android, iPhone, iOS, Tizen, Firefox phone and the like.  They’re getting cheaper.  There’s just one problem with the $60ish smartphones for mobile learning in development: they’re typically awful.  Unlike the indestructible cheap feature phones that run for days on a single charge, cheap smartphones have fast dying batteries and themselves die pretty fast. They are improving, coming down in cost, but if you were on a budget you’d probably rather spend $35 once on a feature phone (which maybe has a smaller screen for all those cat videos) than risk needing to spend money again and charging it more frequently which is often expensive in off grid areas.  Most smartphones listen to some extent to the all important HTML5 standard.  It’s certainly much nicer as a developer to work with than Java 2 Micro Edition. Much less picky, much richer tools, more power to work with.

Why is it important in mobile learning?

© www.mobiledevelopmentintelligence.com [Scaling Mobile for Development: A developing world opportunity, 2013]
Smart phones are but 22% of the Middle East and Africa.  So if we want to make learning accessible to more people; the feature phone is our friend for the next 5 years at least.  That’s why Ustad Mobile was built from the ground up to support feature phones and now all smart phone platforms as well.