The country is witnessing explosive growth in the smartphone market. Thanks to the lower priced models, the India smartphone market grew by 229% year over year (YoY) in the third quarter of 2013. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the overall mobile phone market (Feature Phones and Smartphones) had a 12% growth YoY but it is still dominated by 81% of feature phone market. This means immense business opportunities for companies like U2opia Mobile that are trying to bring the joy of social networking to feature phones and to places where internet can’t penetrate.
While the giants of the tech industry such as Google and Facebook are trying their best to connect the world with the power of internet, U2opia has already partnered with 40 operators in 30 countries like El Salvador, Paraguay and Bolivia. This is being done at a very minimum cost at the consumer end with an existing technology that is bringing closer users from emerging countries to be a part of social media revolution.
Launch of Fonetwish for Facebook along with Airtel
It all started three years back in October 2010, when Sumesh Menon and Ankit Nautiyal got along to bring the power of internet to the emerging market where adoption of mobile internet was a big challenge. To overcome the situation, the duo went back to a technology that has been existing for a while now and we all have used it at some point – Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) technology. It is the same technology which is used when a user needs to send a message to the operator to know his mobile balance.
The team at U2poia fine tuned the USSD technology and developed their first product Fonetwish which enabled a user to access Facebook without any data charges. Meanwhile the team was also talking to Facebook and Airtel about the platform the company was developing. Things started falling in place one after the other and in 2011, U2opia launched Fonetwish which allowed users to access Facebook on basic phone without any data plans.
The technology worked well and provided a seamless experience with Facebook. In India, it is available to almost all mobile phone users, except those who are using network of BSNL. To access Facebook from a basic phone (or from a smartphone that has no data connection) a user has to first subscribe to the service by dialing *325#. Once the service is active, which happens within a few minutes, users can utilize the USSD menu to go through their timeline, check status updates, post status updates and check likes or comments on their posts. The service also allows access to Facebook Messenger and users can exchange messages with their friends.
There is no limit on how many times a user accesses Facebook or how many messages she can send to her friends on Facebook messenger. While different operators charge different price for the service, usually the price is around Re 1 per day, making it a cost-effective way to keep in touch with friends. The user is charged by the operator and later U2opia receives its cut from the operator companies.
Fast forward today, 3 years later, Utopia has made a presence in 30 countries, across 45 of the largest telecom operator groups in the world, in 7 international languages. The user base is over 11 million globally and adding a million a month, shares Sumesh while talking about the growth of U2opia from his Gurgoan office over a telephonic conversation.
While giving me a preview of the demographics, Sumesh informed that 90% of the users are under the age of 24. Teenagers are adopting faster since the age bracket between 13 and 18 is the largest percentage with Facebook being accessed in 70% of the emerging markets.
“The USSD adoption has exploded due to its easy browsing experience and the ability to be the bridge in communication amongst the youth. The platform has been a great alternative for the youth to be connected on Facebook with infrastructure limitations in emerging countries,” adds Sumesh while elaborating the success factors of Fonetwish.
The Twitter tieup
U2opia has not stopped at Facebook though; recently they extended their services with Twitter to bring it to users in emerging markets who have entry-level mobile phones which cannot access the Internet. Users will need to dial a simple code to get a feed of the popular trending topics on Twitter.
Sharing more about the alliance, Sumesh said that while they will be removing the access barrier to use Twitter, at the same time they would bring sense to the content too. “We would be curating content based on localisation to deliver better engaging experience to our users who would opt for Twitter. Twitter is a power house of information but without curation it will make no sense to a user who is sitting in the interiors of Maharastra or sitting in Congo ,” informed Sumesh.
With the Twitter deal, users will also be able to browse through trending topics specific to a city, relevant trending tweets and follow specific celebrities’ tweets.
Limitations with USSD
But the popular technology also comes with its own set of limitations. One of them being that the entire USSD experience is a text based whereas social media has become popular also for its ability to use images and videos. The other big challenge the company is facing is specially in cracking the vernacular languages in India. Even though the Fonetwish platform supports languages like Arabic, Spanish, French but it is yet to crack the regional Indian language market. Sumesh is very well aware of the Indian vernacular challenge and the team is working on to come with a Hindi language support to start with.
Even with these limitations, Sumesh adds that USSD is one of the best solutions to enable web access to people with basic phones or those who live in areas where data connection is not available. Indeed, before the entire world comes under one grid of the internet, a service like Fonetwish is enabling the younger generation from distant places to not only keep in touch at a very low cost via phones but also keep a tab on what’s happening in the world. The Twitter global roll out could be a path breaking one going ahead.
And before we winded up our discussion Sumesh assured that U2opia is now working with several other web companies and operators to enable USSD-based access for more websites.
Image credit: Facebook