Are Mid-Range Phones the “Smartphones 4D”?

I have finally come around to revisiting some of the topics that came up during the days of the CTA ICT Observatory, held in Wageningen, the Neatherlands from 2nd to 4th of Nobember, 2009. One topic in particular that reared its head during the first day, concerned the potential of mid-range mobile phone devices to deliver the benefits associated with mobile services.

The topic came up when all participants were asked by the workshop facilitators Pete Cranston and Christian Kreutz to consider the advantages and disadvantages of different technological channels for access to information. Volunteers were asked to collect views regarding the following channels:

  • Indirect access i.e. information access mediated by another human being.
  • Radio
  • Direct information sharing i.e. CDs, printouts, file sharing.
  • Rural access
  • Basic phones: devices with two-tone displays and basic functionality.  Almost exclusively the functionality is limited to voice and SMS.
  • Mid-range phones i.e. phones with functionality exceeding the basics.  These devices have multi-tone display and a data channel (GPRS) with a high level of usability. Features such as extendable keyboards, cameras
  • Smart phones i.e. phones complete with an operating system and advanced PC-like functionalities such as email and Internet access.

I collected the views of the participants in the workshop on mid-range phones. And after about half an hour we came up with the poster below.

Pros and Cons of Mid-range Phones

The pros of mid-range phones include that they allow for the development of more interactive mobile applications and services. The use of phones and services with basic functionality have proven their worth and usefulness, as in the many deployment examples associated with FrontlineSMS. Still, many of the areas where SMS services are used can benefit from more extensive interactions. That’s why we put interactivity as one of the advantages carried by mid-range phones. The implementations I envisage would fall somewhere on the orange fraction of “social mobile’s long tail”, as explained by Ken Banks in a recent post on his blog. Arguably, mid-range phones are currently the devices of choice for end-users in the implementation of mid-complexity systems and customised solutions. Yet again, arguably, they have the potential of being the devices of choice for the implementation of simple, low cost systems in the future.

Another advantage of mid-range phones is that through the data channel they allow information to be exchanged way more cheaply than SMS. Steve Song оf manypossibilities.net has posted much on the lack of fairness in the pricing of mobile communication and recently started the initiative Fair Mobile).  Mid-range phones allow a cheaper alternative because in terms of the price of data transfer per character, data services based on GPRS are up to 1000 times cheaper. This argument was put forward as part of the presentation of Stephane Boyera from the W3C at CTA’s ICT Observatory. Moreover, the feasibility of extending the use of devices with mid-range functionality in the provision of mobile services is supported by the increased market availability of such devices at prices near the $50 mark.

In a recent analysis of the potential of hybrid devices, Simon Kearney notes that “while smartphones may dominate the mobile growth story in many developed markets, the picture is very different in the much larger developing and emerging world markets.”  In these markets products and services such as Nokia’s Life Tools are, in many ways, exploring leapfrogging possibilities by allowing mobile access to the Internet.

The Nokia Life Tools services, deployed in India and Indonesia are examples of mobile services which can be deployed through mid-range phones. These services are targeted at very low earners in developing countries. They allow users access to weather and agricultural market information. A series of phones designed as end-user devices for Nokia Life Tools, and retailing at prices between 20 and 54 Euros – before taxes and subsidies – are shortly due to begin shipping.

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3 thoughts on “Are Mid-Range Phones the “Smartphones 4D”?”

  1. Interesting post.

    When looking at data gathering tools recently, I’m pleased to see the emergence of online platforms (such as the new EpiSurveyor and ODK /OpenXData) that support a range of end-devices (from basic J2ME Nokia handsets up to Android smartphones).

    Whichever devices become most prevalent, interoperability with services and tools is key.

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