This $44 smartphone isn’t as good a deal as it sounds

Hooking them one Steppa at a time.
Hooking them one Steppa at a time.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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South Africa’s—and indeed Africa’s—biggest mobile operator, MTN, this month released the “Steppa,” an Android phone for 499 South African rand. At present exchange rates that is a few cents over $44, and is “unlocked,” meaning the purchaser doesn’t have to buy a mobile contract. It comes with full 3G and it’s still more than $50 cheaper than Nokia’s much-hyped Asha 501, which uses an in-house operating system and operates on the slower 2G network.

The catch is that the Steppa runs an ancient version of Android software that cannot be upgraded but “has been tailored to the needs of the modern MTN subscriber.” It also has a relatively weak processor, inferior camera and hardly any memory. None of that matters much. The Steppa is meant for first-time smartphone users, as is apparent from MTN’s step-by-step guide, complete with a handy graphic explaining what the heck this thing is. If you’ve never used a smartphone before, you are likely to be astonished by the power of a low-end model because it’s still far superior to anything your old feature phone could offer.

But you will also enter an online world that is less interested in allowing you to explore and more keen on selling you things. The point of the device is to get users to spend money on data. That’s why the phone, a generic model from chip-maker Qualcomm, is branded by MTN, which is most likely selling it at cost or a loss. To get new data customers, the phone comes with Facebook, WhatsApp and other popular apps preloaded. It is also “bundled with an MTN PayAsYouGo starter pack including free social and email smartphone services.” That’s up to a ceiling of 150 mb, and includes a little browsing, instant messaging services such as Mxit, and access to Wikipedia (but only through a particular browser.) In addition, the phone has advertising enabled by default, though reading through an online Q&A can help users turn it off.

In essence then, MTN may as well just give the phone away for free, as Google and Facebook do with their online services, in exchange for allowing users to spend money on other things and to be advertised to. There is nothing evil about wanting to add more data customers or make money from the people using your services. Digicel, for example, has made a solid business out of selling mobile connections in some of the poorest parts of the world. It is now selling them data and online entertainment. In India, Airtel is coming up with ingenious ways to convince people to get online. But dressing it up as a great deal does a disservice to the people who will have their first experience of the internet on an ad-cluttered, very corporate web.