KaiOS & SmartFeature Phones

Following on from my work on the Google Assistant campaign, I kept my eyes and ears open to see where else Google’s Assistant might popup. This led me to KaiOS…

Mozilla called it a day with Firefox OS for mobile handsets back in 2015 and said it would test the waters for an IoT effort using some of the same technology (and it has). But that hasn’t spelled the complete end for the tech on mobile devices.

Quietly, a company called KaiOS, built on a fork of Firefox OS, launched a new version of the OS built specifically for feature phones, and today at MWC in Barcelona the company announced a new wave of milestones around the effort that includes access to apps from Facebook, Twitter and Google in the form of its Voice Assistant, Google Maps, and Google Search; as well as a list of handset makers who will be using the OS in their phones, including HMD/Nokia (which announced its 8110 yesterday), Bullitt, Doro and Micromax; and Qualcomm and Spreadtrum for processing on the inside.

KaiOS has been around since last year, primarily it seems on two devices — the OneTouch Go Flip from Alcatel and the Jio Jio Phone from Reliance in India — and the company says that it has 30 million devices in use today with its OS.

To be sure, the idea of a feature-rich handset that is not a smartphone is not new. Think Asha anybody? In fact, you could argue that this was originally the vision of Mozilla in its own mobile effort, as it looked to create a new ecosystem of HTML5-based apps and cheaper handsets for the developing world, where Android and Apple’s iOS had yet to get significant market share for their more expensive devices. This bring us back to Nokia …

Nokia & Mozilla again.

Earlier this year Nokia continued its trend of releasing their classic phones, this time it was the turn of the 8110 — the distinctive ‘candy bar’ feature phone with a slider opening — was once the phone that everyone wanted but no one could afford, made popular through the Matrix film franchise. Now HMD (Basically Nokia N9 ex-employees), the company that has the license to make Nokia phones, is hoping for a hit by bringing it back. In February 2108, at MWC in Barcelona, Nokia officially took the wraps off the new 8110 — a new feature phone that will come with 4G connectivity and a selected group of apps such as Google’s Assistant, Maps, and Search; as well as Facebook and Twitter (and yes, Snake). It also comes with a battery life befitting of feature phones: 17 days, with 9 days of talk time. The 8110 comes in “banana yellow” (in keeping with its “banana” curved design) and black but really other than just a marketing ploy this blogger didn’t really care until I started to dig into the details. What peaked my interest was the inclusion of the Google Assistant into a non smartphone device. – Interesting. Did we just witness the re-birth a new/old category of Client-Mainframe device?

So why KaiOS ? Put simply we all know that iOS/Android dominate but the data doesn’t seem to agree and although it seems like they’ve taken over the mobile phone market, it’s estimated only 30 percent of the world’s population owns one. That means 70 percent either doesn’t want one, can’t afford one, or is looking for an alternative. The goal of Kai, is to bridge the divide between the billions of people in emerging markets who still don’t have basic internet access, as well as those in more established markets that do. As a result, Kai’s aims are to make internet access available to all, regardless of whether people are uncomfortable with advanced technology, don’t own a smartphone, or can’t afford one.

As with most very forward-looking technologies I just moved on and thought, meh interesting but not really useful for the European markets that I focus on. Now the story popups again In June 2018. Google just added proper support for such Google services like search, maps to go with it already voice assistant front and centre for the next billion internet users in emerging markets. It has invested $22 million into KaiOS, the company that has built an eponymous operating system for feature phones that packs a range of native apps and other smartphone-like services. As part of the investment, KaiOS will be working on integrating Google services like search, maps, YouTube and its voice assistant into more KaiOS devices and device manufacturers such as Nokia.

Im just seeing where this is going. What will happen next to KaiOS and Google Assistant.

April 2019 Update: Google Assistant & 3rd Party Actions

Since first discovering that KaiOS had Google assistant, I’ve been lucky enough to have been sent a device from KaiOS’s PR team. I did this in order to test our Guardian Briefing action. With the aims of seeing how a multimodal action would perform on a lower powered device such as Cat B35. As of March 31st, I can confirm that 3rd party actions do not open on this phone. It just say “Sorry The Guardian Briefing isn’t supported on this device”. I’m trying to find out why and when they will be available.

This was quite hard to determine as the branding say yes it has Google Assistant but doesn’t give any details on the functionality of what the assistant can actually do. Im waiting for this years Google I/O to see if there will be any announcements on KaiOS and GA. Thinking about the Users I can see there is some demand from places such as India to listen to The Guardian’s headlines articles/podcasts on low-cost devices. Time will tell how this platform will develop.