The reasons why it is time to dump dumb phones and develop for Smartphones

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Recently I came to the conclusion that we should be realistic when talking about innovation in Kenya, and I blogged about the problem of developing for feature phones. Yesterday , I had a heated debate with Linet Kwamboka also known as @g33kmate on twitter, on  the way forward for the local innovators/developers. People talk of developing for the right market using the right technology based on the right access point , which in the case of Kenya would mean the use of USSD and feature phones(dumb phones).  That is very encouraging talk, but then after that the developers have to go and look for the foreign investors who think sms is a 19th century technology. For all I know, Sms or USSD based apps are not taking developers anywhere in Kenya and it is high time the developers stop developing for dumb phones and move  right away  to where they can do something worthwhile. And if you think otherwise then tell me one  USSD based app which has shaken this  part of the World, apart  from Mpesa ?  Mmmmh and Mpesa  is basically sim card based app.

There are three ways out for developers, the USSD , the Sim card Based apps and the Smartphones.

1. Simcard based apps: The problem with this option is that every mobile phone operator has its own interest and so unless you have an app which would benefit them in a big way,  forget about it. Safaricom Mpesa is a sim card based app, and it  was easy for it to be an instant success once the Government had accepted it and put in place the right regulatory framework. Safaricom backed by Vodafone and other big money from other institutions found the right way to sell Mpesa to Kenyans and it has worked beautifully. But then you look around and there is no other sim card based successful app worth talking about. The big question is what made Mpesa successful?  Was it the money behind it, was it the people behind it, was it the fact that they used the right marketing strategy  or was it the technology used?

All in all you don’t expect the high level innovation from the big businesses, and in particular in Kenya where there is no tangible Research and Development department in almost all the companies. The innovation would be done by ordinary people, but with mobile phone operators locking them out of the Sim card based route, don’t expect another Mpesa like success soon. Linet and I agreed that the sim card based route for Kenyan developers is out of the equation

2. USSD

This is the part where I told Linet to stop telling developers to develop for the dumb phones. I used to think the same for a long time but I realized that the USSD based apps are just not working in Kenya. Yeah, people have done a number of them but basically they are not working or the adoption is next to nothing. If something is not working get a way to dump it. And that is  why I am saying if you are a developer, go for a web based app or basically develop for smartphones. But a.k.a @g33kmate  has a different opinion when comes to this.

@g33kmate  In Africa, at least for the next 1-3 years, smart phone apps are not the way to go. But thats just my opinion.

Let go back to the basic.. How many people in Kenya remember the short codes, for the different USSD apps we have around? Even topping up the credit card for the sim cards which one is not used to is a problem. Then you ask yourself how about a random floating apps? I use Safaricom sim card most of the time but any time I pick the other sim cards  like Airtel or Orange I find it hard to remember the short codes to use for topping up the credit. It is simple,  people can’t remember short codes, and there is no need of hanging up there every day calling yourself a developer while you are developing for buildings and trees. The market is not responding it is high time people change the direction and stop banging their heads against the wall.

One question Linet kept on asking is that, do we wait until Smartphones takes off to start developing …. And I say nope, people should develop for Smartphones NOW and the population will catch up later. For example back in 2000 when you could count the number of people with phones in Kenya, the larger population still found a way to to use the rare device called a phone by then.Remember simu ya jamii, it really helped many people without phones to call then. That was innovation at its best. It the same kind of spirit that I believe if you develop something great on smartphone at the moment people will find a way to use it even if they can’t afford the phone.

On the first day of the Nokia Open Innovation African Summit, Jamila of M-Farm said something very critical to this . The biggest challenge most developers have is pitching sms/USSD based apps to Venture firms, who basically think sms was for the 19th Century. They don’t see why they should risk putting huge sum of money on something build on outdated technology. That somehow explain why the investments we see around here is so small with huge demand for success.

3. Smartphones. Yeeeeey, the way to go according to me. On the surface it might look like it is not the right time but I believe the time is now. The first question people would be asking is, how many people have Smartphones in Kenya. My guess is over 500,000. Last year one of the Nokia guys in Kenya let slip that they have sold over 40,000 Smartphones.. the figure for  Huawei Ideos stands at around 270,000.  I suspect Samsung could match the same number even more if you consider their whole range of Smartphones. So I give Samsung  300,000. When you add the others not mentioned so far and you get something close to 600,000 Smartphones in Kenya. Now let say you develop a system which only 10,000 Kenyans use regularly. If you can convince each of the 10k people to pay you Ksh.1 daily, then you will be earning 10k daily…mmmh tell me any of the apps in the Kenyan market today earning that amount? Very few…

And my discussion with Linet did not end there..the post about MPESA API is coming up, stay connected

What is your opinion on the topic?
Kennedy Kachwanya
Lead Blogger at Kachwanya.com
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Kennedy Kachwanya is a technology blogger interested in mobile phones both smart and dumb, mobile apps, mobile money, social media, startups ecosystem and digital Savannah. New media must not forget the strength of old tech.
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