Researchers hope to benefit users in developing nations by turning 'feature' phones into virtual smartphones, finds Jan Piotrowski
Once the preserve of the rich, within just a few decades mobile phones have become ubiquitous in even the world's poorest countries.
Indeed, out of six billion mobile phone subscriptions today, three-quarters are from developing countries. From providing mobile banking and market information, to health diagnostic tools and education, mobile phones have had a significant impact on development.
- Only 21 per cent of people in developing nations have access to fixed broadband
- Researchers are giving basic phones smartphone-like features, such as fast browsing
- Falling smartphone prices also offer promise, but upgraded feature phones will still cost less
For example, mobile phones have been used to diagnose and monitor diseases such as dengue fever and tuberculosis, while mobile phone-based banking service M-Pesa allows customers to move money without having to travel potentially long distances to a bank.
Furthermore, mobile phone-based monitoring of the UN's Millennium Development Goals in Bangladesh and the Philippines has given the development community important feedback to help use funding more effectively.
The availability of relatively cheap 'feature' phones that offer voice and text messaging services, as well as a vital — and for many people their only — link to the Internet, has been an important factor in this expansion.
But cheap prices come with a hidden cost.
While there is no clear definition of a feature phone, they usually lack the fast processor chips and sensors available in the latest smartphones. A World Bank report last year linked economic growth to high-speed Internet access, demonstrating the importance of the fast Internet and the multimedia access that smartphones provide.
As only one in five people in the developing world have fixed broadband access, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it is even more important to provide access to high-performance mobile devices that allow fast Internet browsing and include tools such as those enabling the phone's location to be determined — known as geolocation — so searches can be personalised.
As the world shifts increasingly towards more capable smartphones, the threat of an even wider digital divide looms, as those too poor to afford the newer technology are left further behind.
To help bridge this gap, researchers and businesses are working to develop ways to mimic smartphone abilities with the limited resources available to a feature phone. By reprogramming or writing programmes for their operating systems, developers can endow feature phones with extra abilities, such as geolocation and access to 'cloud computing' through which software and hardware are linked to over the Internet.
But can these improvements make up for the lack of an affordable smartphone? And in such a fast-moving field, where the lines between smart and feature phones are becoming increasingly blurred, does this type of innovation have a limited shelf life?
Feature phone boom
The number of feature phones is growing fastest in developing countries: China and India alone each have around one billion subscriptions, up from 393 million and 90 million respectively in 2005. Over this same period, subscriptions in Africa have burgeoned from 87 million to 434 million.
"India, for example, has more mobile phones than toilets," says Vinayak Naik, an assistant professor at the New Delhi-based Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology. "When you consider that most of these are feature phones, the potential impact [of augmenting their function] could be huge."
If smartphone-like functions can be added to feature phones, users in the developing world could benefit from the extra features that they are unlikely otherwise to be able to afford, he says.
For many in developing countries, mobile phones are the only means of digital communication
This is especially important in developing nations, he adds, as mobile phones are often people's only means of digital communication.
One area of particular interest for Naik, and his PhD student, Kuldeep Yadav, is to provide feature phones with geolocation abilities despite their lack of GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology.
To work around this shortfall, Yadav's system uses the Cell Broadcast Service (CBS), a messaging system often used by governments to broadcast weather, local news and emergency information.
By adapting this signal to include the identity of the mobile phone tower from which it is broadcast and using a mobile-phone application, or app, capable of matching this to the tower's geospatial coordinates, feature phones can give their location to within about 500 metres.
While this is not enough to enable fine-grained applications, such as navigational tools, the resolution allows customised web searches, and local weather and market information, which are of use to farmers, Yadav says.
Using the 'cloud'
Although working within the limits of feature phones' existing computing power, as with the CBS-based geolocation example above, allows more people to benefit from technological development, the strategy will not have a huge long-term impact, says Bill Thies, a researcher at Microsoft Research India.
"Anything you can do with the existing hardware and limited programmability is interesting, but it is a pretty constrained game that you are playing," he tells SciDev.Net.
The way forward, he believes, is to develop methods to allow cheap phones to act as portals to cloud networks located on remote servers. By connecting to these vastly more powerful machines, phones can outsource complex processes, and so provide functions far beyond what their limited computing ability would normally allow.
Furthermore, this can be done from anywhere in the world with no extra investment from the end user — all that is needed is an Internet connection and the right software.
Vinayak Naik agrees that this approach has huge potential, not least in the developing world.
Imagine, he says, a cheap phone that can use an advanced voice-recognition system, such as Apple's Siri software: illiterate farmers could ask their devices for advice and receive answers in their own language.
And, while this is just a prediction, others are already making mobile-based cloud access a reality.
Since its launch in 2010, biNu — a free platform that offers access to a range of content, including web browsers, Facebook and news feeds — has accumulated about 4.5 million unique users per month, predominantly in Africa and Asia, from huge cities such as Lagos to rural Nepal.
Multiple content sources can be used simultaneously, and all at speeds that the company says are ten times faster than a standard feature-phone web browser.
By acting as a portal to a virtual smartphone on an external server, a biNu-enabled phone does not so much mimic a smart device as in effect become one, using a growing range of specially developed apps.
CEO and co-founder Gour Lentell aims to include not-for-profit organisations in the app creation process.
For example, discussions are under way on how biNu could collaborate with Worldreader, a literacy and education charity, to improve the distribution of digital books in the developing world, he says.
Apps could also help health workers share information, such as on disease outbreaks, at far greater speeds and in far greater quantities than a conventional feature phone would allow, Lentell adds.
A smarter future?
But mobile-phone technology is evolving fast and, as hardware becomes faster and cheaper, the difference between feature and smartphones is becoming less distinct.
Intel's new low-cost processing chip aimed at mobile phones in the developing world, and the imminent arrival of a web browser specifically for low-end smartphones are just the latest in a series of developments that are ushering in a new era of low-cost, high-performance mobile phones.
This has led many experts to see the importance of feature phones as increasingly limited.
Messaging systems are used to broadcast weather, local news and emergency information
"Feature phones are dying," says Paul Kim, chief technology officer at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education in California, United States.
Over the past few years, during work with mobile-based educational projects in Tanzania, Kim has seen a shift from feature phones to basic smartphones — a shift he says is evident throughout the developing world.
Although anecdotal, this acceleration of smartphone ownership is supported by various sources. For example, a recent report by GfK Retail and Technology Asia has found that high-tech devices now make up two-thirds of South-East Asia's mobile phone market, while in Sub-Saharan Africa the proportion has reached 20 per cent and is growing fast, according to 'African Mobile Factbook 2012'.
Cheap phones, high impact
Access to smartphones has had a "radical impact" on students' abilities in Tanzania, Kim says.
Pilot studies using a learning programme called the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment, which makes use of smartphones' high-performance multimedia capacities, have greatly increased students' critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a matter of months, he adds.
According to Kim, the effect has been so profound that it could create a new problem: many teachers may find their knowledge being outpaced by their students'.
Exactly what further impact smartphones could have on development is still unclear, but this is no reason to doubt that their effect will be at least as significant as when the first wave of mobile phones reached the poor, he adds.
"After all, when basic phones first became available many people questioned what poor people would do with them — and look what has happened."
At the moment, the only thing holding back smartphones is the cost, says Kim. And this hurdle is being overcome rapidly: lower-end smartphones are already available for as little as US$100.
Microsoft has recently team-up with Huwaei of China and plans to release a low-cost Windows smartphone for Africa, to be sold at US$150. And lower-cost local versions are popping up, including a first Africa-designed smartphone, by a Congolese firm, VMK, planned to retail for US$170.
But even with such low prices, the owners of feature phones still have to spend money if they want a new smartphone. This is the beauty of adapting existing phones, says Lentell, as biNu and similar platforms cost nothing to the user.
A more suitable option
Furthermore, smartphones are not always the best option, he adds.
Even if the price of smartphones dropped low enough to allow universal access, their relatively short battery life and the fact that smartphone ownership is outstripping the growth of the infrastructure needed to support them means that feature phones will be a more suitable choice for many for the foreseeable future, Lentell says.
One of these constraints is the coverage of 3G: the mobile network system that supports smartphone function at higher speed and data volumes than its predecessor, 2G.
Currently, only 45 per cent of mobile users worldwide, and eight per cent of users in developing countries, have access to this network, according to ITU, so the majority cannot use smartphones to their full potential.
Lentell adds that in parts of the world, above all in some areas of Africa, mobile network coverage will continue to be based on 2G for the time being.
"I think the importance of lower-cost devices that are robust, have long battery life and run on existing infrastructure has been underestimated," he says.
Naik's research has shown this difference in battery life to be dramatic: using the CBS-based location finder rather than GPS runs down batteries up to ten times more slowly.
Even if feature phones disappear, research that allows all devices to run on minimum bandwidth, connectivity and battery will still be really useful in areas with limited infrastructure, he says.
Also, enabling phones to connect to virtual machines in the cloud would help solve the problem that many apps are compatible only with some of the hundreds of different operating systems, Naik adds.
Instead of being restricted to apps that work on an individual phone's operating system or needing a number of separate phones, users could access a variety of virtual machines, and therefore all programmes though a single handset, he says.
Regardless of whether feature phones or smartphones prove to offer the most benefit to users in the developing world in the near future or long term, the speed of technological change has the potential to drive rapid progress and boost development.
See below for a video about biNu: