This article on WIRED — also highlighted on the respectable Techmeme — sucks. Take a read and then come back here. Done? Let’s do a tear down.
Clearly great features are trickling down. But what’s more interesting is how these cheap phones are going to trickle up. Put Internet-connected, app-capable smartphones running the same major operating systems the rest of us use and there will be all sorts of unforeseen ripple effects on us that we can’t even anticipate.
We tend to think of the ways our technology will affect them. That’s arrogant. We’re the minority. It’s incredibly likely that they’re going to have just as big an effect on us.
WhatsApp is one example. Not that long ago, it was largely unknown in the United States. But it already had exploded in the developing world, and is still growing fast–it hit the half-billion user mark last month. That’s thanks largely to a strategy of being on every phone. WhatsApp got its $19 billion payday not because of promotion in the iTunes app store–or even due to iOS, for that matter–but because of cheap handsets. It’s a play for someone for whom text messaging is a serious expense.
WhatsApp succeeded not because of cheap handsets. In fact, in the beginning WhatsApp was used primarily by the rich in developing countries; they were the ones who could afford smartphones. The relatively poor still used SMS on feature phones.
Or consider emoji and stickers–a perfect example of a lo-fi solution trickling up to high end devices. It started in Japan with pagers, where it was much easier to send an icon than text to convey something complex. Emoji took over Japan, and then Asia, and from there little smiley faces and piles of poop took over the world.
Pagers were a status symbol back before there were smartphones. Only rich, busy people carried pagers. Emoji didn’t start from a “lo-fi” solution, it started from what was at the time “hi-fi” devices. It was the tech savvy that began the emoji craze; not the masses.
And then there’s dual SIM (or even quad SIM). It’s a feature that’s really popular in Asia and Latin America where people might use one network for a local call and another for an international one. That’s largely something MediaTek drove, but now it’s in the Moto E, which also has a feature called SmartCalling to help people set up and swap between SIM preferences and automatically configure access point names. While traditionally dual SIM has been a money-saving option for low-cost phones, it’s also something incredibly useful for globetrotting business travelers, and it’s easy to imagine it as a selling point in a high-end phone.
It’s true that many in say, Nepal use dual SIM to save money by maximizing the advantages of two different plans offered by competing telecom providers. But dual SIM being “incredibly useful for globetrotting business travelers” isn’t an unrealized benefit awaiting developed countries like the US; it’s a major reason right now why many opt for dual SIM.
Shilpa Shreatha, marketing executive of TeleTalk, the authorized distributor for Colors mobile in Nepal, dual-SIM phones have made big inroads in the Nepali mobile phone market, especially among professionals, corporate people, businessmen and frequent travelers. “These people prefer dual-SIM phones to separate their personal and professional lives,” Shrestha said.
Unlike the US, Asia is made up of many smaller countries. Someone in Singapore might need to travel to Malaysia for work — a mere 1 hour drive — and having a dual SIM phone is convenient. I am Indonesian and live in Singapore, so I often take the 1.5 hour flight back to Jakarta. My dual SIM Moto G is quite convenient for that.
Imagine if each state in the US had its own telecom provider, and that you had to pay roaming charges to go from one state to another. Or even one city to another. That is the situation for many Asians, and why dual SIM phones are so popular.
Is this an example of how lo-fi technology will “trickle up?” No, because this isn’t a case of how the poor will influence the rich; this is a solution for a specific market need that the US does not happen to have.
- WhatsApp isn’t as popular in the US, so it’s a developing world thing.
- Emoji and stickers aren’t as popular in the US, so it’s a low-fi thing.
- Dual SIM isn’t popular in the US, so it’s a poor people thing.
But in each case, it’s not. WhatsApp isn’t a developing world thing; it was successful in developed countries too. Emoji and stickers aren’t from low-fi; they originated from hi-fi devices. Dual SIM isn’t just for poor people.