A version of this story appears in the May 2019 print edition of CommsMEA.
High start-up costs. Intense competition from some of the world’s largest multinational corporations, who are not exactly known for welcoming new competitors. Difficult regulatory rules to navigate – and different rules in every country. Not to mention the challenge of, well, inventing a handheld device – and inventing a device people will actually use.
Simply put, the odds are decidedly stacked against anyone that wants to start a phone company – and, given the dominance of Apple and Android, even more so against anyone that wants to start their own operating system (OS) for smartphones.
Clearly, no-one ever told the folks at KaiOS about this – or maybe they simply don’t care. In just a few short years, the San Diego, California-based company has become the third-largest mobile OS company in the world – and only plans on moving further up the charts.
“There are many aspects, including talented employees drawn from across the technology ecosystem, and our dedication to the company’s mission of closing the digital divide, but by far partnership and collaboration have been invaluable to our success so far,” says CEO Sebastien Codeville of the company’s success.
“Since 2016 we’ve focused on developing partnerships that have enabled more than 80 million KaiOS-powered phones to have been shipped to over 100 countries. We work with leading carriers and OEM/ODMs like Orange, MTN, China Mobile, HMD Global, and Reliance Jio to develop the most reliable yet cost-effective devices possible. We work closely together with these carriers to formulate low-cost data plans – priced between a 2G (voice and text) plan and a full-blown smartphone data plan – to facilitate mobile internet access without potentially crippling monthly data costs.
“Additionally, we partner with leading app developers like Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter to ensure our phones offer digital services to enrich our user experience and address access gaps created by the digital divide.”
KaiOS phones are available in a number of African markets, and also the Middle East. Cole, an engineer by trade who spent his early career at Alcatel Mobile and Philips, says this is deliberate. “KaiOS Technologies’ mission is to help fuel the digital revolution in emerging markets since so many people in these areas remain without basic Internet access. This is largely due to a lack of affordable, yet powerful connected devices.”
He expands on the need. “There’s a huge demand for reliable, affordable technology in regions like Africa and the Middle East, where over 800 million people lack basic Internet access. In these markets, smartphones remain too expensive for the average household and standard feature phones limit the digital opportunities available to users.
“According to research by the GSMA, the $100-$200 price tag of a smartphone is preventing 64% of people in Africa from upgrading their phones to 3G/4G devices that can access the internet. KaiOS-powered 3G/4G handsets address this issue as they’re affordable and come preinstalled with the KaiStore, where you can find relevant apps from local developers as well as those from popular content partners including the Google Assistant, Facebook, Google Maps, YouTube, and Twitter.
“With this in mind, we believe Africa is the next frontier for a smart feature phone revolution. Through collaboration with partners – carriers, device manufacturers, chipset makers and content creators – we feel confident we can bring valuable and relevant digital services to communities across the continent.”
Codeville is especially keen to discuss how so-called “smart feature” phones can transform people’s lives for the better and lift society. “Having a smart feature phone can transform people’s lives by providing access to digital resources, including communication tools so users can engage with their families, favourite brands, and the online community at large,” he says.
“With access to the Internet, users can also tap into new educational resources, leverage mobile payment solutions and banking, watch videos, play games, and much more.”
KaiOS CEO Sebastien Codeville.
Smart feature phones can especially improve economic and social opportunities for women, according to Codeville. “According to a GSMA report, mobile is the primary means of Internet access in emerging countries, particularly for women,” he says.
“The majority of people who get a KaiOS-powered phone are going online for the first time, this is especially the case when it comes to women. Having Internet access helps them get information on health, finances, and education, which helps both them and their families.”
He’s quick to say more. “We recently announced Life, a tool for users of KaiOS-powered smart feature phones across Africa and South-East Asia to make the best use of their Internet access and the digital resources that are now at their disposal.
“Life will come pre-installed on most KaiOS-powered handsets and will comprise a directory of curated content in categories like women’s empowerment, health, education, agriculture, financial inclusion, and digital skills.”
With such explosive growth and a noble mission of societal enhancement, the natural question – however obvious it may be – is what comes next. Codeville has a ready-made answer to such queries.
“We will continue to expand globally and establish partnerships so together we can offer smart feature phones to underserved markets and connect the next billion users. We’ll also continue to enhance our technology offerings and develop the ecosystem, so we can deliver custom apps and content across all regions and provide advertising opportunities to content owners and brands through KaiAds.”
He adds; “We plan to invest heavily in growing local developer communities now that global apps have been secured on the KaiOS platform. A strong focus for us will be to launch content and programs that address real-world issues in emerging markets, such as spreading digital literacy and providing digital platforms for social good initiatives. To do this, we’re forging partnerships with other organisations, including governments, NGOs, and industry alliances like the GSMA.”
He ends with advice for any business looking to replicate KaiOS’ success – or blaze their own trail in the great wilds of the world of commerce and societal betterment. “Three factors have been important to our growth: a strong and disciplined focus on a specific product (need), working closely together with a wide variety of partners and addressing their needs, and lastly localisation (providing relevant, localised content and experiences).”
And finally? “We’re only just getting started.”