The "next billion" are the holy grail of tech and mobile companies -- the next billion users to come online, from the poor world, whose preferences and norms regarding technology have yet to be formed.
There's fierce competition among Android handset manufacturers to produce low-cost devices, whose specs have been shaved down to the bare functional minimum; this has produced equally fierce competition among app developers and major online services to produce "light" versions of their offerings that will run on this low-powered hardware.
The official story is that this is working great – certainly, there are huge numbers of new smartphone users coming online in the poor world every day. But the reality doesn't really live up to the hype, as Pranav Dixit discovered when he bought a $60 Bharat 2 phone – the bestselling phone in India – and installed Facebook Lite, Ola Lite, Uber Lite, Twitter Lite, YouTube Go and Google's Files Go, an app designed to clean up temp files and optimize storeage.
The result was practically unusable. The lite versions of the apps barely ran, and the phone quickly ran out of storage and started to throw errors, slowing down as it ran out of space for swap.
Dixit's experience is not unique. He interviews Indian Bharat 2 owners in India who find the devices barely usable, and even then only with baroque hacks like deleting and resinstalling Facebook every month in order to clear out its bloated cache files.
The manufacturers and carriers who push phones like the Bharat 2 insist that they're a great choice, representing the difference between "no phone" and "a phone," which swamps any deficiencies in the phones themselves.
I wish I could tell you that lite apps made a $60 device usable. But they did not. Some apps took nearly a dozen seconds to open up. (I’m looking at you, Ola Lite; Ola promised that its lite app would be “quick and nimble.”) Scrolling through my Twitter timeline was a stuttering, jerky mess, despite Twitter's claims to “load quickly on slower connections.” WhatsApp, which admittedly doesn’t have a lite version but has long been famed for its ability to run well on all kinds of phones, kept gobbling hundreds of megabytes of storage, forcing me to delete and reinstall it over and over again to get rid of messages, pictures, videos, and other junk that inevitably gathered in the dozens of WhatsApp groups I’m part of. Sometimes, the apps froze randomly and booted me back to the homescreen.
What gives? Rushabh Vasa, cofounder of Agrahyah Technologies, a Mumbai-based startup that creates apps and local-language content for cheap devices, said, “Companies aren't incentivized to care very much about giving users with budget phones a good experience. I think most companies treat light apps as giving people a small taste of their products in the hope that they will eventually upgrade to better phones and use the regular versions of their apps.” He said, simply, “They're more likely to generate revenue from the higher-end users.”
I Used A Phone Like Most People In The World And It Was Awful [Pranav Dixit/Buzzfeed]
(via Beyond the Beyond)