Sure, millions of people in developing countries are upgrading their old feature phones for smartphones. And they’re getting online in record numbers, jumping into the wild world of ecommerce and mobile money like ducks to water. But they aren’t using their shiny new (or just as likely, secondhand) smartphones the same way people do in mature markets. For one thing, they don’t use apps to access web content. (Over 90% of African and Asian mobile users access the web directly from websites; in the US, 90% of web access is from apps). Emerging-market users are also very conscious of the high cost of data. Several companies see these differences in usage patterns as an opportunity. Internet.org, of course, gets a lot of press for offering free Internet access to sites that fit within Facebook’s digital garden. But the Boston-based start-up Jana has quietly built up three times more users and carrier partnerships than Internet.org, with none of the net neutrality criticism. Jana has a compelling business case, acting as a kind of broker between operators, advertisers and users, offering free air time for downloading an app or buying a certain brand of detergent, etc. Another company, LotusFlare, has created an app that smartphone owners can use to monitor data usage in real time. The app, called DataEye, also allows users to transfer data or monitor data usage by hours rather than abstract megabytes.
Jana and LotusFlare are increasing the odds of success by taking an ecosystem approach and designing with the end user in mind. Smartphone apps often leach data in the background (e.g., through auto updates or synched cloud accounts), which is surprising, costly, and annoying to new users. Giving people more control over how much data they’re using addresses a distinctly emerging-market concern (whereas in mature markets, the incentive is to use more data). These companies are also mindful of the entire mobile ecosystem, partnering with advertisers, carriers and OTT service providers to further reduce costs and extend access. In emerging markets, subscriber growth and retention – particularly among new smartphone adopters – is a primary concern for operators, so they are willing to try new models of data usage that bring people onto their network. Advertisers are happy to pay for data, so long as their products and messages get into the hands and heads of potential customers.
The opportunity for other companies is to follow a similar game plan, improving the entire mobile ecosystem by buttering every slice of the value chain bread. Established companies can adopt elements of these new models through acquisition or partnership. As user needs and preferences evolve, other niche opportunities will present themselves, but they will be visible only to those nimble and creative firms who understand the whole ecosystem and figure out how to make everyone happy (for a small fee, of course).