RISE OF THE DUMBPHONES

The best of Google’s Android is coming to cheap feature phones

About 83% of the world’s four billion smartphones run on Google’s Android operating system, making it some of the most influential code of our generation. But fewer people are buying smartphones for the first time in a decade, and the market for cheaper feature phones has started to grow again.

So Google is going after feature phones, too.

The Mountain View, California-based firm has made a $22 million investment in KaiOS, a company that makes the operating system for feature-phone manufacturers like Nokia. As a part of the deal, the stripped-down feature phones will offer Google apps like Assistant, Maps, YouTube, and Google Search.

Google Assistant, the company’s virtual personal assistant embedded in flagship products like the Pixel smartphone and Pixelbook laptop, could be a challenge for feature phones with slower processors. The AI software that Google uses to turn audio into text typically requires a fast processor, though the company is working to make that software easier for phones to handle. Inclusion of Assistant and speech-to-tech technology from Google could also bypass one of the biggest limitations of feature phones, which is the lack of a full-size keyboard for text entry.

Android is a critical aspect of Google’s business: it guarantees users of its other software products like search, Gmail and Google Drive, which in turn feeds its advertising and cloud businesses. These apps now on KaiOS have a similar effect: Every user in the Google ecosystem is money in the bank.

KaiOS is based off the operating system first started by Mozilla’s ill-fated $25 phone experiment. The new software has shipped on 40 million devices, according to TechCrunch, and in India, KaiOS phones are more popular than iPhones.

There may come a time where smartphones become cheap and ubiquitous enough to supplant feature phones entirely, but until then Google has its bases covered.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that KaiOS shipped on 400 million phones. The actual number is 40 million.

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