OneApp Aims to Give Dumb Phones Some App Smarts

Microsoft on Tuesday announced OneApp, a software application for feature phones.

Feature phones, which are essentially low-end mobile phones without any smartphone features, are widely used in both established and emerging markets. OneApp will give users access to mobile applications most often found on smartphones, including social networking, messaging and banking apps.

Microsoft’s first partner for OneApp is South Africa’s Blue Label Telecoms.

That makes sound business sense — the African market is growing, and World Cup soccer championships will be held in South Africa in 2010, a fact that is expected to boost demand for mobile phones.

OneApp’s Technology

OneApp takes a client/server approach to mobile apps. It has a lightweight client of about 150 Kb that sits on the user’s feature phone. The server side will be deployed on wireless carriers’ networks.

Wireless carriers offering OneApp will have the option of hosting it in Microsoft’s Azure cloud service.

The apps are small — about 30 Kb. Currently, there are 12 apps, including an RSS feed, mobile banking, Windows Live messenger, news, sports and stocks. More will be rolled out in the future, and Microsoft’s carrier partners will decide which apps to make available to their customers.

OneApp dynamically launches the parts of an app that a person wants to use. The apps are updated automatically when the user turns on the phone.

Apps run between the phone and the server, so users don’t have to download individual apps. OneApp is designed to minimize the load on phones and carrier networks, according to Microsoft.

OneApp runs on several Nokia phones, including E-series and N-Series models. It also runs on the Samsung U900 Soul and various Sony Ericsson models, including several models in the W series and the C510, C902 and C905.

Starting the Dance Card

Microsoft is launching OneApp in South Africa with wireless carrier Blue Label Telecom. OneApp is available through Blue Label’s “mbili” service at no charge.

The tie-in with Blue Label comes as no surprise to Julien Blin, CEO and principal analyst of JBB Research, who has just written a report on the South African user-generated content market. “Microsoft owns 12 percent of Blue Label,” he told TechNewsWorld.

OneApp will be launched in more countries within the next year, Microsoft said. However, it declined comment when approached by TechNewsWorld.

Still, its move into emerging markets could be lucrative. “Over 80 percent of the world’s population of nearly 6.8 billion people reside outside of North America and Western Europe,” Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC, pointed out.

“If Microsoft doesn’t target the developing world, its competitors will,” she told TechNewsWorld. “Microsoft is quite literally following the money.”

The World Cup Card

The African wireless market could be especially rewarding because it is a fast-growing and underserved market, Blin said. “Sales to the African region will help offset the decline in developed markets such as Western Europe and North America, and Microsoft understands that Africa presents huge potential for them,” he said.

That potential will be even bigger than normal through next year, when the World Cup soccer championships will be held in South Africa.

There are 50 million wireless subscribers in South Africa today, and the nation is Africa’s second largest wireless market after Nigeria, which has 67 million subscribers, Blin said. He expects the mobile user-generated content market to grow, especially as the World Cup nears. Mobile user-generated content consists of mobile chat and mobile blogging, Blin said.

Clever Choice of Apps

With the strong emphasis on mobile chat and mobile blogs, Microsoft’s selection of apps was strategically dictated.

For example, Windows Live Messenger, which is one of the apps offered in OneApp, may see growth. “OneApp should help drive the adoption of Windows Live Messenger,” Blin said. However, that is not likely to pose a threat for MXit, the leading mobile Internet messaging service in South Africa today, he said. MXit has 12 million subscribers.

Microsoft’s selection of Facebook was also a clever move. Facebook is the most mobile blogging service in South Africa, according to Blin.

Its choice of mobile banking is also a good one. “Mobile banking has the biggest growth potential in Africa ,as it fits the needs of most Africans, who don’t have a bank account and who have low income,” Blin said. “Mobile banking has become the next gold rush in Africa.”

That gold rush is luring other large competitors to Microsoft, including Apple and Google. “Google is currently working with local content providers in South Africa to offer local content on its Android app store,” Blin said. “Apple is likely to follow suit.”

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