Image Credit: Com World Series.

The African Smartphone Revolution

“A smartphone is a portable personal computer with a mobile operating system with features useful for handheld use.” – Wikipedia.

If you’re reading this right now, chances are you’re reading it with a smartphone. If you’re using a smartphone, please smile because your current act serves as a preamble for this topic. If you’re not using a smartphone, smile too. It looks good on you. You see, our smartphones play an integral role in our lives and we can’t talk about them enough. A voice for those who don’t have. An eye for some that can’t see. A vault filled with precious memories and secrets for others. Or a powerful tool you can use to “rule the world”, in Speed Darlington’s voice. I hope you get the picture I’m painting.

Smartphones have helped (and are still helping) people in so many ways. To everyone, they mean different things and are used for different purposes. From regular things like calling and keeping in touch with friends and family, to more ambitious things like building an empire. They are an essential part of the technological revolution that is spreading across the continent.

Africa, in certain cases, has been slow to make use of latest tech. Technological innovations (and inventions) either reach our shores late or we don’t see the need to make use of them until later on. This is probably why we are always playing catch-up. But when BlackBerry showed up on the mobile market, it caught the attention and wallets of many, BlackBerry was considered really smart during its days and was quickly picked up by business owners and working class people. Its featured an advanced security system which made it a cooperate tool, plus, they were a bit pricey then so not everybody could afford to use it.

BlackBerry phones were considered the “total package” even though the features they had were available on devices before them. Infact, a trip back in time will reveal IBM’s Simon as the first smartphone, although the word “smartphone” wasn’t coined till 1995. After being introduced in (the Nigerian market) 2006, people noticed how advanced it was over it’s competition then, namely Nokia and Samsung. Africans wanted more and BlackBerry was offering more. Its advanced messaging, browsing capabilities and cheaper internet subscription (BIS) was instantly preferred all over the continent.

In the following years, BlackBerry started a culture in Africa. Everyone was exchanging pins and the slang “Ping me!” became a norm, people would talk about their different models and how each series was superior to the other. My first BlackBerry phone was the Bold 4 and I remember not sleeping the night I got it, even though I had used an Android phone prior to the BB, the euphoria was insane. I spent the night creating an account and downloading some apps. The best part was signing up for BlackBerry Messenger. I was able to send and receive “invites” by sharing my BB Pin and asking my friends for theirs. Life was good. For some people though, a BB phone was a must have and they could do anything to have one. Movies were even created to depict the things people do to get them. Things society would generally consider indecent.

Tonto Dikeh and Oge Okoye in BlackBerry Babes. Image Credit: Ginger’s Blog.

On the international front, BlackBerry was slowing dying, Apple’s creation of the iPhone and Google’s Android OS were threatening BlackBerry’s ecosystem.

Apple’s iPhone, released in 2007, set a new pace in the smartphone world, Apple’s take on a smartphone was a breath of fresh air with a well done operating system but at a cost. Android, when it came on scene, was unique; its open source abilities, highly customizable interface, and integration with Google’s services was revolutionary. Before long, people started dropping their BB phones for iPhones and Android powered devices.

With a massive 85% OS market share, Android is untouchable at the moment. Don’t believe me, take a look at the information provided by the International Data Corporation (IDC):

From the information above, Android is growing stronger with iOS doing quite well too. Although, I should point out that a comparison between Android and iOS in this case isn’t perfectly fair. Android is open source which means smartphone manufacturers can use the operating system on their devices and customize it however they like. iOS on the other hand is strictly for Apple’s line of smart devices.

Android has an amazing ecosystem in Africa. Smartphone makers from all over the world have seen the marketing potential here and have flooded the market with different devices, all claiming to be better than the other. Certain brands do stand out though; Samsung is probably the biggest player in the Android world and have a strong presence here in Africa. But even they are getting stiff competition from the rapidly growing Chinese mobile industry. You see, as a Nigerian, I’ve always been warned against Chinese products. They are generally considered “fake” and that warning still holds true till today. But when it comes to the mobile market, we can’t help but acknowledge the good work they are doing. Yes, I said good!

Since Android is open source, you would expect Android powered devices to get to our hands cheaply right? Sadly, that’s not how it works, not here at least. This creates room for the Chinese mobile industry , if you want the best of something, you’ll have to spend more to get it but you also can’t burn through cash you don’t have. Chinese smartphones are generally cheap as opposed to bigger players. They retail for an average price of $250 (N90K) but you can definitely get good-enough ones for $100 (N36K) or less. They basically level the playing field for people like me with brands like Tecno, Infinix and Gionee being fan favourites. With these guys, we get capable smartphones and enjoy the best Android has to offer without in any way, breaking the bank.

Not everyone is a fan of inexpensive Android phones though, a number of people feel there are a lot of compromises and they can’t live with that. Some have poor displays, mediocre battery life, weak processors, etcetera. So they prefer to shell out cash on more expensive phones, (something I won’t mind doing as soon as God blesses me). Whereas, others prefer to shop according to brand. Brands like Nokia and Samsung have deep roots in our continent and have generally earned our trust. So, rather than stake our money on brands we don’t know (or trust), we’ll prefer to invest in well known brands, regardless of their price tags.

It’s not all Android for everyone though. Android phones are great but not everyone enjoys using them or would like to own one, other platforms have their dedicated userbase with Apple’s iOS being the second biggest. With a 15% OS market share, iOS is probably the only “competition” Android has in Africa. Apple’s iPhone is their most successful product till date.

In Africa, iPhone is somewhat following in the footsteps of BlackBerry. It has also started a bit of a culture here. You see, people consider iPhones to be a luxury statement. I’m not sure if this is because of their price or because they are generally used by public figures. Although, I’m pretty sure the latter wasn’t why Apple created it. iPhones have been expensive from day one and it was created by a company that has been around for a while. Therefore, they have garnered the trust of the old and young generation. iPhone, just like every other smartphone, was made to be a tool and in the right hands, it’s just that. However, in the eyes and hands of others, it’s more of an accessory. Some people literally get an iPhone just so they can brag about using one. It doesn’t matter the model. As long as it’s an iPhone, man you popping. Which is all good. Remember I said people get smartphones for different reasons.

So, lets highlight some of those reasons…

  • Staying connected and updated: With our smartphones; friends and family are basically a few clicks away, so is the world around us. We can catch up on the latest sports transfer news, fashion trends, music and viral videos. Almost nothing can elude us.
  • Searching for opportunities: The world is filled with many of them but we just have to look in the right places. That’s where our smartphones come in. Coupled with the internet, our phones can help us search or jobs, start-up ideas, connect us to investors and customers. We are connected to the world in real time.
  • Photography: I love pictures. Not selfies, but pictures of the world around me and I’m sure you do too. Smartphone cameras have evolved over the last few years. Today we have smartphones with photography abilities that can rival DSLR cameras. High-end smartphones like the Google Pixel XL, iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei Mate 9 have all been praised for their exceptional camera abilities. Even “budget phones” like the Tecno Camon CX has a pretty decent camera.
Again, it looks good on you. Taken with the Tecno Camon CX.
  • As a Companion: No, I don’t mean as a boyfriend or girlfriend. Although, I wouldnt say a world as depicted in ‘Her’ is light years away. I mean more as assistants. Our phones keep us organized, or atleast, they are supposed to. We can set reminders about important events, locate a restaurant or boutique, take mental notes or random jottings, call an Uber and so much more. We basically have a PA in our pockets and bags.
  • Specific Features: Besides the basic communication capability every smartphone has, certain features make that smartphone stand out and we Africans know how to use those unique features to our advantage. Smartphone manufacturers are generally innovators, and to make their different devices unique, they innovate on certain features to make their phones stand out and appeal to a large consumer base or a specific niche. For example, Motorola’s ShatterShield Display is putting an end to breakable phone displays. Samsung’s Infinity Display is beyond beautiful and it gives your phone more screen estate without compromising on size. Apple has touted the new iPhone 8 as “the first Smartphone designed for AR (Augmented Reality)”. Although, we’ve had access to that for a while now. Snapchat filters are possible thanks to AR and Pokemon GO was a big AR sensation when it was released. I guess Apple want to take AR to a new level with the new iPhones. Which you can begin to enjoy now if you’ve upgraded to iOS 11 on your curent iPhone and have the MeasureKit App installed. It’s an amazing measuring app that was built with Apple’s augmented reality framework — ARKit.

So, how can we and improve our ever growing ecosystem? First, we need contracts! Even though high-end smartphones are expensive (obviously), have you ever wondered why everyone abroad is walking around with a smartphone ? Well, the answer is contract. With smartphone contracts, users can easily get a smartphone and pay for it over a given period of time. There is really no hassle. Not that we don’t have them over here at all, they are just scarce in comparison. In Nigeria, Airtel seems to be the only one making an attempt. I noticed their contract sales of the iPhone 6 (not sure if it’s still available though) and their recent partnership with SOLO to launch the Aspire M – an Android phone with a monthly commitment of N4,150 over the next 12 months with goodies included. Thumbs up to Airtel and SOLO and I hope other companies all over the continent can follow suit. You know, if they haven’t.

Speaking of continent, when we talk of the mobile market, we infact refer to countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and a few other countries. But hello! There are 54 countries in our beloved continent. Companies need to stop focusing on already booming mobile markets and start entering under-developed markets. They need to expand their horizon. That way, more people can plug ito the connectedness of the 21st century and Africans can be a prime players in this revolution. Smartphones have played a big role in moving the culture of our new age forward. A simple act of being on snapchat, replying your email, working on a word document via your new Samsung S8, facetiming a friend across the globe are all big influences of generation X.
These little acts have created an access for the minds of Africa to create, think, innovate their own worlds using their phone as a slingshot for everything that comes to mind, its changed a lot of paradigms across African countries and also helped in shaping a more aware future for us all.

Image Credit: VentureAfrica.

Adeshola Ogunleye

Grown man in a young body but I use that to my advantage.

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