How Developing Economies Can Unlock The SIM Card As The Biggest App Store

Developing economies can leverage the humble SIM card to spur innovation that caters for all social classes.

That tiny bit of plastic telcos sell you to get connected to their mobile network has been ignored by app developers almost to the point of oblivion.

Out with the old, in with the new, all app developers want is the proverbial silver and gold from Apple and Google’s app stores.

Here is one sobering "fact":

99% of phones of planet earth  —  dumb, feature and smartphones have a SIM card: 4.5 billion reasons we should rethink ALL our assumptions about it.

Of course dear reader, you’re probably curious about the other 1% of phones: well, that’s in the hands of aliens and what-not, so we won’t worry about that for now.

Demographics Of Developing Countries

From my Development Economics course back in college, I learnt one important thing: the majority of the populations in developing countries live in rural areas.

It is a well-understood fact that smartphones in such areas are mostly owned by rural elites  — i.e. teachers, civil servants, N.G.O folks trying to make the world a better place in their 4x4 Toyota trucks, maybe the local chief, maybe, and a handful of other folks who belong to this elite class.

A snapshot of smartphones viz. feature and basic phones

A snapshot of smartphones viz. feature and basic phones | Lightspeed GMI

Let’s put this in perspective, according to Lightspeed GMI, out of the 4.5 billion mobile subscribers on planet earth  —  only 40% are smartphones, with the rest, in other words, 2.7 billion mobile subscribers, being feature or ‘dumb’ phones.

smart·phone
ˈsmärtˌfōn/ noun
a cellular phone that performs many of the functions of a computer, typically having a touchscreen interface, Internet access, and an operating system capable of running downloaded applications.

fea·ture phone
noun
a mobile phone that incorporates features such as the ability to access the Internet and store and play music but lacks the advanced functionality of a smartphone.

dumb·phone
ˈdəmˌfōn/ noun
noun: dumb phone
a basic cell phone that lacks the advanced functionality characteristics of a feature or smartphone.But i find the word dumb kinda derogatory, so let’s call them basic phones.

A Moment of Silence For Nokia

At this point, let’s have a moment of silence for Nokia, longest reigning King of basic phones that still have immense utility in rural Africa  —  a powerful built-in flashlight and a long battery life.

These two features are highly prized by folks living outside the grid, where connection to electricity is still high up in their version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The Humble SIM Card

Dear reader, now that we have 2.7 billion reasons why SIM cards matter, let’s briefly see what the fuss is all about.

In Kenya, the most cited and successful mobile payments app  —  M-PESA, is actually a SIM card app.

A screenshot of M-PESA running on a basic phone

A screenshot of M-PESA running on a basic phone | Mbugua Njihia

Here’s the most beautiful thing about it, it runs on any kind of mobile phone; so no potential user is left out because their phone isn’t compatible, talk about 100% inclusivity.

Now, meet STK — SIM Application Toolkit, a standard of the GSM system which enables the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) to initiate actions which can be used for various value-added services.

Mathematicians and Scientists adore the elegance of a theorem or theory a lot, like a-l-o-o-o-t, because of the inherent simplicity and parsimony of that theory or theorem.

Developed way back in 1996 as platform for running SIM applications, STK is almost the definition of elegance due to it’s 100% coverage of all kinds of phones: from the latest iPhone to the most basic phone in deep in rural Africa.

Unlocking The Biggest App Store

Telcos have a stifling hold on the SIM card, and nobody ever seems to seriously care about it, even though by Law the mobile subscriber should have major rights on how they get to use the STK platform inherent in their SIM card, within legal limits of course.

An article notes this major but totally ignored challenge:

"Development of JavaCard/STK application means to have good relations with smartcard producers, an area where almost everything is covered by NDA’s. Deployment of such applications means connection to mobile operators. As a result it is closed community with very little if none room for independent applications."

From a personal experience, I stumbled on Karl Koscher & Eric Butler’s work while trying to port a utility bill payments solution to the SIM card, and I could relate with their frustrations.

Developing a SIM card app can make you tear all your hair out, and even after you go bald from your development frustrations, deploying that app is almost impossible.

A Magna Carta For The SIM Card

So the whole world needs to develop an understanding with telcos viz. STK as a formidable and cross-cutting app platform even as we think about an inter-galactic internet.

The major policy issue here being the development of secure standards that will open up STK as an app platform to developers, with an app store whose quality is ensured by the global community akin ICANN — which manages the wild wide world of domain names on the internet.

Any individual , corporation, organization and nation that cares about the progress of humanity, especially those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid should rethink every assumption they’ve ever had about the humble SIM card and maybe…maybe, we’ll all get to see how formidable a global SIM card app store is and could be, as a tool for positive social change.

But what could we do with SIM card apps?

They’re too simple and basic.

Yes, dear reader, that much is true, in fact, there’s just a couple of functionalities available on the humble SIM card:

  1. Contains an identity (SIM) and authentication mechanisms —  user authentication using PIN/PUK number and SIM authentication.
  2. A simple file system — Address book: whatsapp leverages the user’s address book as a social graph. Many innovative apps can be built around this social graph.
  3. SMS and session keys: SMS is still King as mode of communication, has and can be used to build a whole plethora of innovative apps whilst session keys are kinda secure as an authentication mechanism, especially for 2-factor authentication and can be used to build innovative block chain apps — the only limitation is our imagination.
  4. Java Virtual Machine: custom java apps roaming, tracking & payment.
  5. A basic menu which users can use to interact with the app, no photos or fancy graphics: just text-based menus.

So as you can see dear reader, the question is not what we can do with SIM card app, the question is:

What has not been done with a SIM card app?

And this is an exciting question for any innovator around the world, there’s still so much more to be done in this locked-up app store. Our collective imagination is the only limit, my dear reader.

Old Arcade Machines | Phil Monger

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