Can a $25 Handset Start a Smartphone "Flood" in the Developing World?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 24 2014 6:00 PM

Can a $25 Handset Start a Smartphone "Flood" in the Developing World?

firefox
A $25 smartphone would significantly increase access to smartphones worldwide, but Mozilla may have competition from other manufacturers targeting the same space.

Photo by Mozilla.

There are tons of smartphones debuting at Mobile World Congress, and Mozilla has seven models to add to the list. But it also has the prototype of something different: a $25 handset targeted at lowering the bar for smartphone access in the developing world.

As PC mag reports, Mozilla's announcement promised a "flood" of the low-cost phones over the next few years. Of course we've heard things like this before with the long-discussed $100 laptop, but Mozilla's plan seems solid, and other manufacturers may even be announcing competitor handsets in the low-cost range.

John Jackson, vice president of mobility research at the market intelligence firm IDC, said in a Mozilla press release, “Firefox OS has more than established itself in the very markets it aimed to address. IDC expects year-on-year Firefox OS volumes will grow by a factor of six times in the smartphone category alone.”

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Mozilla is working with Spreadtrum, a Shanghai-based semiconductor company, to develop the reference designs for the handset, which will of course run Firefox OS. The smartphone is currently a prototype, but Spreadtrum has developed a chipset for it that supports basic data connections like EDGE and 3G, though not LTE. The handset will have a camera, radio, small touchscreens up to 3.5 inches, wi-fi connectivity, and Bluetooth. With a low-end chip, low screen resolutions, and no LTE this will definitely not be a smartphone that can handle intensive productivity or media tasks. But it should expand access to messaging services, basic productivity apps, and web browsing. 

The BBC reports that Mozilla may face stiff competition if other providers put out similar low-cost smartphones that run on more mainstream operating systems, and therefore support more apps and services that people might want. But compared with the feature phones that are currently acting as a stopgap between old school cellphones and smartphones in the developing world, Mozilla's handset has potential to at least make waves if not cause a whole flood.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is a staff writer and the lead blogger for Future Tense.

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