Hip Product Bloat or Social Entrepreneurship?

Mozilla’s announcement of a joint venture with Chinese chip-maker Spreadtrum to launch a $25 smartphone for the developing world is in a kind of netherworld between Bloat and Boring.

On the one hand, much of the announcement looks like classic “Hip Product Bloat”: designed by people far from the scene, bringing something that’s common in rich countries to places where it’s largely unused, etc.

Yet Mozilla the mobile phone’s appeal to developing country consumer’s is extremely well established now, which holds out the genuine possibility that the $25 smartphone could spread organically, in the kind of demand-led way that eludes usual Hip Product Bloat.

Certainly, there are any number of income enhancing and income smoothing applications you could build into a suitably accessible smartphone. And it’s clear that it’s Mozilla’s own money that’ll be going into this: if it flops, the flop is on them and their partners alone.

Perhaps what concerns me about the announcement, though, is that it falls into the old trap of treating the product as the relevant innovation, ignoring the finance and distribution bottlenecks that are generally spell the death of Hip Products in the developing world. If anything, a $25 Smartphone seems like an ideal candidate for the kind of M-Pesa-based, micropayment financing model M-KOPA Solar has pioneered for solar panels.

$25 is still a substantial chunk of change for people in LDCs. But 10 cents a day for 250 days? That seems very doable.

And if the phone locks up, allowing you only to make a payment or to make emergency calls once you miss a payment, how big a default rate do you think you’d get?

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