From downtown Berlin to rural Africa, people seem to like smart phones, but often they can't afford them. A Chinese mobile manufacturer has cornered the market for cheap smart phones in Kenya with a sleek, bright unit called the IDEOS. At about $80.00 (€55.00), it's not exactly a steal for the average resident in Kenya, where some two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2.00 per day. But since the IDEOS launched there this February, more than 350,000 Kenyans have snapped it up.
German consumers can get in on the bargain starting Sept. 1. The Chinese company, Huawei, will launch a similar discount Android phone called the IDEOS X3 as part of a package through Lidl, a German discount supermarket chain. It will cost about €100.
"The market for smart phones is definitely in a transitional phase," Lars-Christian Weisswange, a vice president at Huawei's Western European division, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The company is betting that consumers will aim for affordable rather than luxury-brand smart phones.
"More and more people are realizing the benefit of mobile Internet," says Weisswange -- especially in African countries like Kenya, where mobile phones are popular to start with. Since many African countries lack solid land-line infrastructure, and computers are expensive, Internet-ready mobile phones are a growing market.
They're even popular for banking transactions, which can save rural residents long treks to the nearest branch or ATM. The Kenyan mobile company Safaricom, for example, has developed a cash-transfer system called M-Pesa that allows customers of a given business to use their phones as mobile wallets.
African Android Apps
Android is the continent's latest mobile obsession. Google launched a contest for Android app development in sub-Saharan Africa this year. "At every Google event in Africa, Android is the most popular topic," Google Program Manager Bridgette Sexton said in a statement announcing the contest this spring.
Current finalists include "Rush Hour," from Kenya, which helps users navigate the streets of Nairobi, and "Setswana Phrases," a phrase dictionary of the Setswana language submitted from Malawi. Competition winners, who will receive an Android and $25,000, will be announced Sept. 12.
In June, a similar contest awarded its top prize of $25,000 to Medkenya, a health care advice app that connects patients and doctors. The contest was arranged by iHub, an organization that brings together investors and entrepreneurs, and according to a report in MIT's Technology Review, the app's developers have established a cooperation with the Kenyan health ministry in hopes of developing affordable and accessible health information for Kenyans.
From Africa to Germany: Same Android, Different Apps
Agriculture is another hot sector for African app developers: The popular "M-Farm" helps farmers find current market prices or or even customers for their products. Other agricultural apps provide information on pests or plant diseases, collecting and disseminating data on these trends and providing tips for prevention.
Cheap smart phones are not just a status symbol in Africa, in other words: They can help people help themselves. In some ways Africans have simply skipped the idea of a personal computer, which are still a staple in industrialized nations.
Huawei is betting the discount phones will catch on in Germany, too, though one commonly voiced complaint is sure to be universal: the short battery life.