Update, March 3, 2019 (11:51PM): KaiOS representatives have clarified the technical underpinnings of the feature-phone platform. The company told us that it doesn’t have an Android base, but uses the Android kernel.
Original article, March 1, 2019 (12:01PM): Android and iOS might be duking it out in the mobile world, but a far less technologically advanced platform is quietly challenging Google and Apple‘s efforts. KaiOS, formed in 2017, might be a feature-phone operating system, yet it’s already become India’s second-most popular mobile platform.
The phones powered by the operating system are turning in some impressive numbers in the U.S. too, said David Bang, vice-president of marketing and business development for KaiOS in North America and Korea. The executive said each KaiOS device that launched on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile achieved sales of over 500,000 units.
“We launched a device at Tracfone last October and this one in three months did over a million devices,” Bang told Android Authority.
KaiOS going where Android Go can’t?
It seems like comparisons between KaiOS and Android Go are inevitable, as Google attempts to bring Android to low-end smartphones. But what does the executive make of KaiOS’s advantages and disadvantages versus Google’s platform?
“I don’t wanna call it an advantage or disadvantage. We are definitely two different products,” Bang said, noting their focus on the non-touch, feature phone segment. “We felt that it was a very under-served market and quite honestly we don’t think this has been a market Google has been able to address effectively as of today. We’re definitely two different products, it’s not an apples and apples comparison.”
Speaking of Google, the search company plowed $22 million into the company last year. Bang elaborated on the impact of the investment.
“The Google investment really accelerated what we were doing previously. So the planning with Google actually started way before the investment happened. I think after launching in India, Google realized that KaiOS really can be a tool to get to the next billion users. So the investment, the PR, and all the buzz that came with it actually really accelerated what we were trying to do already.”
In addition to the presence of Google apps and WhatsApp, KaiOS’s success can also be chalked up to its relaxed system requirements, enabling phones that are cheaper than current Android Go devices.
“This allows us to keep the costs down on the devices and, of course, we don’t manufacture hardware. We license KaiOS for free to anyone that wants to develop for it, and we’ve seen that it allows the OEMs to actually produce very very cost-conscious devices. So we’re talking about LTE under $30, we’re talking 3G devices under $20.”
Bang noted that KaiOS had an Android base, with Java and HTML5 technologies on top of that. Does that mean we could see Android apps on the smart feature OS?
“No no no, again, the number one advantage and the number one vision for KaiOS from day one, was to be lean, and to work on very small hardware (sic),” said the vice-president. “Once you start adding an Android type of experience where the applications are actually residing on the phone, it defeats the purpose.”
The platform also gained more Google-related features this week, as the Mountain View company announced that voice typing and Actions were coming to the feature-phone OS. Bang clarified that offline Assistant commands aren’t available on KaiOS phones — a pity given the platform’s target market, but understandable given the modest hardware.
Furthermore, the executive touched on the platform’s goals in the coming months, saying they expected to reach between 150 million and 200 million users by the end of the year. India accounts for roughly 90 percent of its active users, Bang says, but the company is now targeting Africa, Asia, and Latin America as part of its expansion plans.
Like the idea of a KaiOS device as a burner device or festival phone? Well, the company confirmed that it was working on a companion app for Android and iOS. The app, which doesn’t have a release window just yet, would allow users to transfer contacts and other information from their smartphone to a KaiOS-powered phone.