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With all the talk of iPhones versus other smartphones, discovering the newest and coolest app, and debates over whether to use SMS or a web-based app to send messages to your friends and colleagues, it is easy to forget that millions of people around the world are still extremely grateful to simply have a functioning mobile phone of any sort. In fact, having a smartphone puts some people in the developing world at a disadvantage because of their lack of durability and short battery life, making a tried and trusted Nokia a much more attractive option. In fact, the majority of mobile phone users in the world have feature phones, with the large majority of those living in the developing world. These phones are capable of basic functions, name-calling, and SMS.

How many mobile phones are in use?

When the world’s population reached over seven billion people in October 2011, a surprising announcement by the GSM association accompanied the news stating that the number of SIM cards circulating the planet had reached six billion. A study published only two years before this on Indian use of mobile phones found that every 10% increase in mobile use corresponded to a 1.2% increase in national Gross Domestic Product. The number of mobile phones around the world has increased at a staggering rate in the last decade, with mobile phones becoming common in most countries around the world in areas where even clean water can be a scarcity.

The popularity of mobile phones is as much a matter of consumerism as necessity. Just as having the newest version of the iPhone is a status symbol in the U.S., having a phone at all can say a lot in the developing world where it is common knowledge that the cheapest mobile phone available can cost a couple of months’ salary.

Huawei partnered with Safaricom to offer Kenyans the cheapest Android phone yet, at $80 each. However 40% of the population lives on $2 a day or less so the feature phone Nokia 1100 is the most popular – it’s one of the most rugged phones on the planet and costs a fraction of the price of a smartphone, offering its users only the basic functions of calling and texting through SMS.

Why is the increase in mobile phone use so important?

These phones have helped save lives all over the world by allowing organizations to let individuals know about important events, warnings, or other information in real-time, when before they could only rely on word of mouth. Family members are able to keep in touch and let one another know of births or deaths, and local farmers can let each other know about the selling price for their products or even approaching bad weather.

How does SMS make a difference?

All of this life-altering communication can be done over SMS, a much cheaper option than voice calls. Because even the most basic phones are equipped with SMS capabilities and the way that this text messaging service is available on all phone networks, the ability of these phones to send SMS has been what has really revolutionized the world. Bulk SMS marketing campaigns have been a huge aspect of this process. UNICEF, for example, launched a RapidSMS initiative to receive data from users in six countries and contact users in the case of an emergency. Never has the world been so connected.

Companies that have services or products that are attractive to the market of developing countries should be taking advantage of SMS marketing as the best tool to reach their customers. Internet-based ads will have little effect because many people in these regions do not have regular access to the internet and other more traditional forms of marketing will have little success because of developing countries’ different infrastructures.

The future of mobile phones lies in developing countries, with SMS marketing still being the primary method of information dissemination. Mobile phone producers and operators need to refocus their attention on this sometimes ignored area. For more information about the impact of mobile phones on the future of the developing world, see here.