Anyone paying attention to the news can be forgiven for feeling that things have been moving really fast lately. In less than 10 years, over half the world could be connected to the Internet via smartphones. People will order (and pay for) everything electronically, and products will be delivered by drones. We’ll go from point A to point B in electric vehicles that drive themselves, and wear a diverse array of devices and sensors that inform our health, manage our time, and control our “things” (fridge, car, solar panels, etc.). Our glasses will take videos and stream our lives on Facebook, auto-saved to the Cloud and scanned by data-bots that mine our life-streams for marketing gold.
It’s easy to feel that the current rate of change is so fast, it’s no use designing for current markets. The big winners are designing ecosystems, not products. But this would be a mistake. Yes, mobile phones have arrived, even in remote, rural areas of developing countries. And in some countries, they are being used for an impressive variety of financial, health, entertainment, or social services. But the vast majority of people in emerging markets still use mobile phones as a tool for basic communication. Their adoption of new mobile services is gaining momentum, but it will always be guided by the perceived utility and relevance of the service. Feature phones are regularly used to send or receive money because it saves people from long, expensive bus rides, or from walking around with a pocketful of cash. But mobile money is still not very common in mature markets. As two billion emerging-market consumers acquire smartphones, there is no reason to believe they will use apps and services in the same way as they do in developed countries.
Conventional wisdom says that companies must control the platforms and onramps to the mobile web to thrive in the global market, but there are opportunities for any company that supports, enables, and promotes the development of locally relevant content and services. Large and small companies in many industries can directly engage with local content and service developers through acquisition, partnerships, and incubation programs. As the pace of change quickens and smartphones usher in the Internet of Things, even appliance makers need to understand the challenges of owning a fridge in Zimbabwe.