I appreciated this article from the Huffington Post, which went viral earlier this year, showing all of the tech products from a 1991 Radio Shack ad that have been replaced by a single phone. And while I realize that marveling at the functionality of smartphone apps has become something of a cliché, if you really want to be impressed, consider some of the amazing things that can now be done on feature phones – those old-fashioned, flip-open relics that you likely forgot about after the advent of smartphones:
- An app is addressing India’s notoriously unpredictable bus schedules by sending users an SMS text when their bus is 5, 10 and 15 minutes away.
- In Kenya, the cleverly named iCow app lets farmers track the reproductive cycles of their cattle and other livestock, receiving information on breeding, nutrition, milk production efficiency, and gestation via text message.
- Sproxil lets patients in emerging markets detect counterfeit medicines through SMS-based verification, while the Ushahidi platform lets users upload instances of violence, natural disasters and epidemics to crowdsource interactive “catastrophe maps,” helping aid groups and governments save lives.
- A variety of apps allow users to chat via instant messaging, use Facebook and Twitter, and even surf the web, translating webpages automatically into the user’s local language.
- Perhaps most impressively, the renowned SMS-based mobile payment app M-Pesa has become the world’s most successful money transfer service. It lets users in a growing number of developing countries buy products and services, send money to individuals or banks, pay bills, and make cash withdrawals – it has even expanded its services to include savings and loan products.
The development of these technologies is spurred by the stunning growth of mobile connectivity in the developing world, and a happy by-product of this growth is the new wave of digital entrepreneurs who are finding novel ways to work within the constraints of an environment where feature phones dominate and almost 80% of mobile connections are 2G-only. But, as impressive as these innovations are, just imagine what these entrepreneurs could build if they were programming for smartphones and faster networks.
We will soon find out. The developing world is in the midst of a smartphone revolution, driven by plummeting phone prices and burgeoning 3G and 4G access. The GSMA predicts that by 2020, emerging economies will account for four out of every five smartphone connections on the planet. Hardware manufacturers and app developers are responding to these changes, thereby opening the door to astonishing possibilities as people everywhere get access to both powerful computers and the limitless resources of the web.
This connectivity is already propelling technologies that have the potential to reshape entire industries. For instance, the Santa Monica-based tech startup Meed is linking a holistic range of mobile-based banking services to the transformative power of global connectivity in ways that were all but impossible not too long ago.
By combining their signature service, SocialBoost, with their suite of mobile financial services, Meed will provide two of the things the underserved need most: additional income and convenient, affordable financial access. As access to smartphones and mobile networks grow, so will Meed’s ability to spread these benefits to communities the world over, including those whose economic circumstances or geographical location have traditionally excluded them from financial services. Meed believes the smartphone revolution will spark a parallel revolution in financial access, and they intend to lead the way.