Israeli start-up gives feature phone owners in developing markets access to Wikipedia, Gmail, Skype
VascoDe, an app development company based in the start-up hub of Tel Aviv, has developed a system that lets people with basic phones use Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and other digital services – without a data contract, or 3G signal.
The company hopes to use its patented Clientless Mobile Interaction (CMI) platform to bring social media and other online services to places where Internet access is poor and smartphones are rare. CMI has already been launched in South Africa, and VascoDe hopes to pass a million users within a few months.
In order to democratise access, VascoDe takes the familiar services and strips them to the bone, removing anything other than the text. The result is very basic, travels over universal digital services on mobile networks – and still serves its purpose.
Back to the basics
Established as an app development company in 2009, VascoDe soon shifted its focus away from smartphones to their simpler cousins, feature phones which basically do little more than make phone calls and send text messages. Why, you ask? Well, 83 percent of the phones in use around the world don’t feature touchscreens or cameras. They are equipped with simple, often monochrome displays that are capable of displaying one thing, and one thing only – alphanumeric text.
Added together, feature phones present a market of 5.4 billion devices. VascoDe wants to help them all to “join the digital community”.
VascoDe isn’t the first company addressing this area. Two years ago, Gemalto got some interest at Mobile World Congress, with a SIM-based Facebook application, which used SMS and displayed a text version of the service on a feature phone screen.
Not all these approaches use SMS. Some use the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), a protocol used by GSM cellular telephones to communicate with the service provider’s computers.
USSD is similar to SMS, with the exception of a few key properties. By design, USSD messages are limited to 182 alphanumeric characters in length. They are session-based, and because every session establishes a real-time connection, it makes them more responsive than SMS. The very definition of the protocol requires the messages to be delivered in under two seconds.
USSD could also be seen as more secure but less permanent than SMS, since the information is not stored on the mobile device, and disappears forever once it’s gone from the screen.
Back in the days when mobile phones were heavy and expensive, the USSD technology was used to display pre-paid balance through codes like *345#, but more complex services can be built on it.
Facebook is available over USSD in various Eastern countries including Malaysia and India, through arrangements with local operators including Digi, Airtel and Fonetwish: users simply press *325# top get a version of the Facebook interface.
Among the vendors offering USSD interfaces to specific applications, is Myriad, which makes social media interfaces using USSD, that are in use with various operators.
Tweeting on a $10 phone
VascoDe says its CMI is more general than these. It allows operators to run a range of applications on their computers, which can be accessed by users over USSD. It could be described as very basic cloud technology which runs using existing GSM infrastructure, and any GSM phone.
VascoDe uses USSD to offer customers access to Skype, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, Instant Messenger and its own mobile payment platform.
It works like this: users dial a short code, and the menu with various online services is displayed on their screen. From there, users can navigate using numbers and letters to select a necessary command, or read and post messages.
The company specialises in “taking cool and rich web experiences and making them poor and limited”, jokes Shay Naor, business development manager for Telecommunication Industry at Israel Export Institute. At the same time, it makes these experiences available to anyone.
Sure, a Galaxy S III owner might question the usability of such service. However, VascoDe claims that even the lacklustre monochrome interface has helped users “forge friendships, business relationships and marketing opportunities”.
The company works directly with the operators and service providers in order to open new revenue streams and “increase subscriber satisfaction and loyalty”. Since the service can generate additional value, VascoDe can offer it for free in certain countries, and charge a small monthly subscription fee ($1-$2) in others.
CMI has already been launched in South Africa (with all three leading mobile operator networks) and India. In the nearest future, the company plans to offer the same product in Latin America and beyond.
VascoDe is expanding into new markets at a time when many Internet companies are starting to realise that they need new means of access to their services in order to grow the user base.
Twitter has recently confirmed that feature phones are part of its expansion strategy in developing markets, and made a deal with Nokia to include a simplified Twitter app on low-end Asha handsets. These cheap devices are making a very serious contribution to Nokia’s profits too, somewhat compensating for weak Lumia smartphone sales.
VascoDe will be present at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of this month.
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