There’s a lot of talk these days about where Asia stands with Silicon Valley, and I’ve certainly tackled this topic a lot, but maybe we need to shift the discussion into areas where the Valley is not touching. As Dave McClure mentioned to me last month, the phenomenon of large social media networks or platforms with millions of users that make no money is unique to the Valley. It’s unique to there in part because there’s enough risk-taking money to sustain cockamamy schemes of bright-eyed, daring young entrepreneurs.
Asian entrepreneurs, by contrast, grow up in considerably more practical circumstances. We don’t live in a world where over 60 percent of the population owns a smartphone. We live in a world where internet penetration sits around a 30 percent average, with countries like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan as the bright outliers. We live in a world where feature phones still dominate the landscape and will continue to do so for the years to come. This is the reality that Asians live in and the environment that Asian entrepreneurs have to build for.
This is why it’s so fascinating to take a look at the innovation that we’re seeing on top of feature phones instead of smartphones. Of course, SMS isn’t as sexy as an iPhone app, but the fact is it impacts hundreds of millions of people – maybe billions in Asia – on a daily basis and it has untapped potential. Here’s a few cool examples we’ve covered:
- ZipDial – An interesting startup out of India that sends an ad to a user if they call a company’s number for info but then hang up right away. This leverages on a culture in India (and greater Asia) wherein people call each other and hang up before picking up the phone, thereby “missed calling” them just to notify them of something without being charged. Who’da thought you could build a business on top of that?
- SMS for a toilet – In Beijing, the municipal government is looking for ways to let citizens to text their telco to get the location of the nearest public toilet.
- Hauraa – The Indonesian government approved the issuing of SIM cards that come prepackaged with useful Islamic-related content. The SIMs will come with video clips and guides for practicing Islam.
- SetechViet – This unique company out of Vietnam built a little device that has a SIM inside of it. The S-Bike is designed to be installed inside of a motorbike and can give all sorts of data to users. If you call it, it will tell you the GPS location; if you text it, it can ring or turn off the motorbike. It’s also useful in the event of bike theft.
- Smart Txtbks – This awesome Filipino startup is packaging entire textbooks and learning materials straight into a SIM so that the material can be read as SMS.
- XL Axiata’s SMS sticker packs – This fun perk for mobile users out of Indonesia is packaging stickers and emoticons along with telcos, hoping that users will choose to download the stickers onto their feature phones. This brings the fun sticker packs from messaging apps like Line and KakaoTalk straight into SMS.
- VeXeRe – This new Vietnamese startup, instead of issuing paper tickets and doing booking online for buses, sends tickets to users straight to their SMS, deleting all the hassle of picking up or printing tickets.
- SMSGyan – This awesome Indian startup literally built Google for SMS. In other words, users can text the service and it will send back search info related to the text’s query. It got over one million users in the first 100 days of use.
This is just a small sample of a few of the really innovative and interesting initiatives and companies that are building on top of SMS. There are tons of others and they’re pushing the boundaries of how you can use something as basic and prehistoric as SMS to deliver services that people want and need. Even countries like Myanmar, which are now opening up, are able to do things like implement M-Pesa where no other country in the region can.
At the latest Unicef hackathon in Ho Chi Minh city, many of the hackers quickly realized that if they wanted to build services that helped a greater part of the society, it made more sense to build something like a dashboard that could text to customers. In Thailand’s telco incubators they’re also hot on the trail of working on innovations that apply outside of just smartphone apps, leveraging on the telcos’ SMS services. In other words, we’re bound to see more of these unique innovations across the region. And because they come shipped along with the price tag of an SMS or a SIM, they must be practical from the get go.
There is just no way that we would see this kind of innovation coming out of the US. All of their entrepreneurs are building for a post-PC smartphone and tablet world. In Asia, we have to build for both, the post-PC world and the pre-PC world, at the same time.
(Editing by Steven Millward)