The new version of Android, KitKat, is very different from previous ones in that it requires less processing power to run. This means that cheaper devices or legacy Android phones will be able to update to a new, shiny OS for free. This might seem like a bold move by Google to protect their operating system’s market share, but in reality, it means so much more.
It means that “The Next Billion”, those who will become smartphone users in the years 2014/15, will stand a greater chance of owning an Android device. As these future droid fans are from the developing nations with different cultures and socio-economic background, their smartphone usage diverges vastly from consumers in western, developed nations.
Furthermore, their lives will be fundamentally changed by the incumbent smartphone ownership. Far more than being just a status symbol or the latest gadget, a $150 device could change a person’s path in life, increase their economic power and free them from oppression or poverty. Here’s how KitKat will kickstart this change.
2014: The Year of Smartphone Adoption
It was once thought that developing nations couldn’t sustain a profitable mobile network, let alone a retail market for devices. However, as the millennium came and went, the entrepreneurs who set up telecommunication industries in America and Europe realised that there was money to be made elsewhere.
A prime example was Denis O’ Brian’s telecommunications company, Digicel. Having conquered the Irish mobile network market in the 1990’s, he sold his operation for a huge profit. He then reinvested in mobile networks in several Caribbean countries where adoption was slow. To drive growth, he introduced incentives and low-budget mobile phone options. The result was an explosion in mobile phone usage within a few years. So, with the right scale of economies, the mobile phone business can be super profitable in low-income countries.
Smartphones have replaced standard GSM cell phones in developed nations as the leading devices being sold and used. So just like they did post-2000, telecommunication companies are taking their proven business models, networks and devices to developing nations. Regions such as rural India, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America are poised to be the main areas of investment.
KitKat is helping greatly in this next phase of smartphone adoption. Previously, the cheap smartphone knockoffs that have plagued developing nations could only run non-smartphone operating systems or ran indie versions with huge compatibility problems. Google are now offering budget phone manufacturers (such as Huawei, Lenovo, Xiaomi, Micromax, ZTE,…) a free OS that will run on devices with low processing power. Not only does this bode well for the OEMs, it helps put Android devices in the hands of The Next Billion.
New Users, New Trends
Of course, it’s a huge mistake to assume that people of different cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles will follow the same usage patterns just because you put a similar product in their hands. Research so far indicates that those who purchase smartphones in developing nations use them a lot more as tools in their business and lives compared to people from developed nations.
Helping Farmers, Businesses and Rural Communities
Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, found that rural communities benefit from utilising accurate weather forecasts to schedule farm activities such as harvesting. Farmers can also monitor market prices for the crop and organise the sale of their produce much easier. A smartphone can increase the power of rural farmers by providing access to information and a greater number of potential customers.
Increasing Literacy and Liberty Among Women
A recent study by the GSMA Development Fund found that women in developing countries who owned a mobile phone felt safer and more in control of their lives. Furthermore, the use of text messaging led to an increase in literacy rates among women who had been removed from education at a young age.
This led to an increase in the economic opportunities of women. Respondents reported that mobile phone ownership lowered barrier of entry for women into the world of business and entrepreneurship. It stands to reason that smartphone adoption would fuel this trend by providing more access to information and easier business communication methods for a fraction of the cost of a laptop or PC. KitKat should enable more women to have access to programs we take for granted like email and an internet browser, both of which are key tools for seeking unbiased information and communicating privately with others.
Increasing Education, Employability and Economic Power
Similar to how owning a mobile phone increases a woman’s chances in the workplace, employees in general report that smartphone ownership works wonders in their professional life. This, obviously, wouldn’t come as a surprise to any office worker or professional used to receiving work email on their phone. What is surprising is just how much better employees in developed nations are at using their smartphones for work purposes.
In the US and UK, when asked whether employees use their own devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops for their job, only 21% and 16% respectively, said that they do. Employers are missing out on huge potential increases in productivity by not having employees want to always have a virtual office in their pocket.
The situation is a mirror opposite in developing nations. Early adopters of smartphones and tablets say that they love using their personal devices for work as they feel it increases their personal productivity and gives them greater autonomy in their roles.
40% of Chinese employees and 41% of Indian employees say they use their personal devices all the time for work. Even greater numbers report using their own devices for work ‘now and then’. This trend is so strong that employers are now attracting candidates on the basis that successful applicants will be able to use their own phones and devices for work purposes. In this scenario, everyone’s happy as the employers don’t have to spend capital to buy the workforce new devices, while the employees feel more empowered.
This is where KitKat offers another advantage over previous Android versions and other OSes because it has been further optimised for the office. For example, phone-to-printer capabilities are now a core function and there’s a brand new ‘file picker’ system, which links together local files and those stored elsewhere (eg. Google Drive) for better access to documents.
Facilitating Response to Natural Disasters
It’s not all about getting jobs or starting a business; a wide network of smartphones could help save lives. The recent devastation in the Philippines and the low, uncoordinated response, proved how any infrastructure that exists in a developing nation can be nullified in a time of crisis.
In this context, the American Red Cross demonstrated how effective a smartphone can be in a time of crisis. Their Android app includes features such as the ability to send out an ‘I’m Okay’ social media broadcast to a user’s account which would help alleviate ‘missing persons’ reports which often extend into the thousands.
The app also includes weather alerts, news bulletin notifications and crucial information updates such as the locations of aid stations. Finally, a ‘Toolbox’ section offers an emergency strobe light using a phone’s camera flash to attract attention and an audio alarm sound.
Widespread use of apps like this could really help restore some semblance of order in the wake of a natural disaster. People with smartphones running KitKat could download the most up-to-date apps with GPS capabilities and VoIP calling which would prove invaluable should mobile networks go down.
Although Android is facing mounting competition from smaller OS offerings such as Samsung’s TIZEN or the open-source Firefox OS, I think that its huge user-base, massive cache of apps and the new level of compatibility brought to the table by KitKat will see it through the upcoming storm.
The new OS deals with the thorny issue of Android fragmentation which has plagued Google and developers for years. Now that pretty much anyone can run Android KitKat, they’ve been able to replace apps as the core OS functionality with new ‘universal’ features such as Google Now and the all new Google Services function, which actually acts as a gateway for the Play store and small OS updates too. Simply put, this means users the world over will not only be unified around a new operating system, but will also gradually become hardcore Google users.
By strategically going after the ‘Next Billion’, Google are securing the operating system’s future and offering people a chance to own a powerful, modern smartphone for a fraction of what it used to cost. It could be over a year until significant insight is gleaned from developing markets, however I feel strongly that new users will be a heavy influence on further incarnations of Android.