Innovation in the mobile phone space, for many of us, means the latest smartphone or tablet from Apple or Samsung. But for millions of people in the developing world, simpler developments for feature phones -- the type you probably haven't used in half a decade -- can be an education game changer and a tool for empowerment.
Non-profit Worldreader has brought more than half a million e-books to children in Africa via the 10,000 Kindles it's distributed. After a one-year pilot program, the organization has launched Worldreader Mobile, a way for any feature phone user with a 2G connection to read more than 1,400 books for free.
"Feature phones are omnipresent in the developing world. They're people's lifelines; they're where they get their access to payments and the Internet," Susan Moody, Worldreader's director of marketing and communications, tells Mashable. IPhones and similar smartphones may be buzzworthy, she says, but they apply to a proportionally small number of people. Five billion people are using feature phones that run on 2G networks.
Through 2G networks, Worldreader pushes classic titles available through Creative Commons -- think Pride and Prejudice and Nancy Drew -- onto its users' phones. It recently begun adding local African materials, which has caused an immediate surge in readership. Hindi and Bengali titles for the large Indian user base are coming through the pipeline.
During the pilot, readers in Nigeria, India, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, among other countries, have gotten hooked on reading. The Worldreader Mobile app has been downloaded onto 4 million feature phones, and there are more than half a million active users, who use the app at least 20 times each month.
If innovation in the feature phone space seems outdated, remember there are only 1.5 billion smartphones among the world's 6.4 billion cellphones. In Africa specifically, there are just 15 million smartphones among the continents half billion phones. According to 2012 projections from Wireless Intelligence, those numbers won't soon be changing: By 2016, 75% of sub-saharan Africa will still just have access to 2G.
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