Android accounts for about 85 percent of the global smartphone market; iOS accounts for virtually all of the rest. So it has stood for most of the past decade despite a host of failed challengers that entered the market before and after Android’s debut. But one operating system is adding tens of millions of users by bringing new functionality to a device that has been all but forgotten in the U.S.
KaiOS, which I first wrote about last April as an engine for minimalist phones, is an open source OS. It was spun out of an effort within TCL (owner of the Alcatel and BlackBerry phone brands) from the remnants of Firefox OS. It is well on its way to becoming the modern-day spiritual successor to Symbian, which was once a dominant operating system for feature phones. Indeed, HMD Global, the heir of the Nokia phone brand that was once Symbian’s greatest champion and that claims to still be the global leader in feature phones, is using KaiOS in its 8110 “banana” slider phone. However, its biggest success to date has been India’s JioPhone.
While optimized for keypad input, it features a web browser, email client, and other essential apps. It also features an app store, although, in the world of KaiOS, carrier is king. For example, while it is an outlier, the only KaiOS phone available in the U.S. is the Alcatel Go Flip, available via prepaid carriers such as Cricket and Simple Mobile. It lacks the app store. However, while many feature phones top out at 3G and lack Wi-Fi, KaiOS’s support for Wi-Fi and 4G should provide connectivity long after major carriers sunset their 3G networks in the next few years.
Even as Google continues to target lower price points for Android phones, it recognizes the value it can derive from KaiOS. The company invested $ 22 million in the effort last year and is the preferred search engine and voice assistant for KaiOS phones. The latter aligns well particularly well with Google’s push of its Assistant, the limited input options of many KaiOS phones and larger percentage of illiterate users in developing economies adopting the OS.
Feature phones will likely retain a sustainable market for the foreseeable future, but KaiOS is also making a play for the Internet of Things. This is one of the many markets in which Google has struggled to expand Android’s reach, recently scaling back its Android Things effort. For Google, Android Things is a developer retention play; the Android model of driving revenue through apps, content and advertising don’t apply. KaiOS’ carrier customers, though, can leverage IoT devices to sell managed services, particularly as they gear up parts of their 5G networks developed specifically to handle their low-power, low-speed requirements.
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Still, even though KaiOS devices could eventually outnumber Android devices, there are a number of caveats and reasons why it wouldn’t pose much of a competitive threat. First, while the number of IoT devices could eventually outnumber the number of humans and, by extension, mobile phones, KaiOS would likely capture only a fraction of that market. And even if its raw installed base numbers came to dwarf Android’s, the widely disparate needs of IoT devices would negate treating such a hardware/software combination as a viable horizontal platform in the way we think of Android or iOS.
Still, as the smartwatch market has shown us, there are bound to be edge cases and KaiOS’s easily navigable interface, app capabilities and modern connectivity could wind up powering many devices that would otherwise enable Android developers to leverage their skill sets.
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Approaches include a smaller smartphone, an attractively designed minimalist phone, and bringing more sophisticated apps to feature phones.
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The company will focus Android Things on consumer devices such as smart speakers.