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Smartphones are still a long way from taking over the world

By Leo Mirani
AfricaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In the three months from July to September last year, 3.8 million smartphones were shipped to shops in India. In the same three-month period this year, that number grew to 12.8 million smartphones, according to research firm IDC. Indians, it seems, are finally getting into this whole smartphone thing. Year-over-year growth of 229% is nothing to sneeze at.

Feature phones still dominate Indian phone shipments.

Yet smartphones accounted for less than a fifth of mobile phone shipments in India in the third quarter of this year. The old-fashioned feature phone made up 81% of the market. As a proportion, it is down from 93% of the market during the same quarter last year. But that doesn’t mean declining sales for feature phones (older models without touchscreens or 3G internet connections). In fact, they grew 3% during the third quarter of 2012 from the previous quarter, to some 54 million units. (Smartphones grew 28% from the previous quarter.)

Despite its reputation as a country comfortable with technology, India lags far behind global trends. Worldwide smartphone shipments overtook feature phones in the first quarter of this year. China, a richer and better connected country, achieved that milestone in the second quarter of 2012. India, on the other hand, shares more in common with poor countries like Myanmar, where smartphones are not expected to overtake the older models for another three years. The situation is even less rosy in sub-Saharan Africa, where the only country expected to surpass 50% smartphone penetration in the near future is South Africa in 2017, according to the GSMA, an industry body of telecoms operators.

Smartphone penetration as a percentage of national population.

For all the talk about the next five billion internet users, it’s clear that smartphones will remain out of the reach of much the world until they can be produced and sold as cheaply as their predecessors, which can be had for some $15. Only then will the promise of mobile broadband be fulfilled.

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