Device detection crucial to conquering brave new world of mid-range devices in emerging markets

Nokia’s launch at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February of a revamped version of its iconic 2000s mobile handset the 3310 prompted a rush of nostalgic excitement among the press pack and delegates walking the halls.

In fact, the small table available for hands-on time with the updated classic – just a small part of a large Nokia stand predominantly given over to extolling the transformative power of 5G connectivity – was among the busiest and buzziest areas of the whole show.

In the present age of information overload, the prospect of once again owning a feature phone that keeps us connected, but not constantly distracted, has an undeniable appeal. Yet while it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to a bygone simpler age, Nokia’s launch – and the excitement it has generated – has shone a light on an underestimated segment of the global mobile device market. The new 3310 might be being touted as a good backup handset for nostalgic UK smartphone owners, but in many developing countries feature phones of its ilk still dominate the market.

Consumer brands that think they have set themselves up to succeed in these emerging markets but, in particular those whose business has a strong ecommerce element, may be in for a shock if they haven’t given proper thought to device detection. Global brands in particular tend to focus their web design efforts on catering to the latest flagship devices from the biggest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). A study by the Pew Research Centre identified a strong correlation between a country’s level of smartphone ownership and its wealth, so it’s not necessarily a bad strategy. Flagship smartphone owners are typically the most affluent consumers, and therefore most likely to spend money on other premium consumer goods.

However, while smartphone market growth might influence where brands set their focus for web design and customer targeting, the reality is that there are also myriad devices available further down the value chain. Global shipments of feature phones – devices with much more limited online functionality – reached 396 million units in 2016, with Samsung (13% market share) and Nokia (9%) leading the way, according to Strategy Analytics.

Brands are keen to tap into the immense potential that emerging markets have to offer, especially those where ecommerce booms as availability of high speed Internet connectivity has rocketed and the social middle class has grown. In many such markets, however, growth in smartphone ownership is increasingly being driven not by high-end flagships but by low- and mid-range devices from lower-cost local challenger brands. This is particularly true in China.

Overall, global feature phone shipments reached 396 million units, accounting for 21% of all 1.8 billion mobile phones shipped in 2016. The most popular feature phone brands shipped during that period were Samsung (shipping a sizeable 2.3 million feature phones and capturing 13% market share) and Nokia (shipping 35.3 million phones for 9% market share worldwide). Flagship smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, and LG may be status symbols, but they are often unattainable or impractical for most consumers, with a substantial section of the market preferring cheaper devices that are still able to perform core tasks well enough.

Feature and low-range phones are more affordable because they use cheaper, less capable internal components. But these reduce their ability to satisfactorily render the highly sophisticated and resource-intensive web sites that brands are increasingly designing with premium devices in mind.

Operating systems, too, become a limiting factor, with many low- and mid-range devices running niche alternatives, and even users of high-end devices abandoning default browsers in favour of data-minimising versions that optimise web content for poor network connectivity or to reduce data costs. One that few in the West will have heard of is the Chinese UCWeb UCBrowser owned by Alibaba Group, a popular feature phone browser that works on a wide range of platforms and has had an average of 16.88% market share over the past year. In countries such as India, UC Browser has had a mobile traffic share as high as 59% over the past 12 months.

The proliferation of lesser-known hardware models, operating systems, and browsers often don’t figure on the radar of brands either when it comes to initial web design or at the point of determining what version of a site should be served to an individual user once their device has been identified.

High-speed connectivity is becoming more commonplace in emerging markets, but there are still huge areas where only low-quality services are available, or where connectivity is intermittent and detracts from the mobile web experience. Initiatives such as Google’s Web Light (The Drum viewed through Web Light), which reformats web pages into a basic version that is more easily loaded and navigated, and Accelerated Mobile Pages, are empowering users. However, they may be mischaracterising the devices it performs the simplification for, potentially causing issues when it comes to site visitor analytics.

The global mobile market is a complex one, and because of this device detection is essential for making informed decisions and ensuring users – whether they use their new Nokia 3310 in the UK or a Samsung Galaxy Y in India – are served the right version of the website. It will be the difference between cracking an emerging market or failing before you even got started.

James Rosewell is founder and CEO of 51Degrees.

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