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The little phone that could

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With the world’s attention on the Mobile World Congress and the very latest in smartphones, we ask: which is the most popular mobile phone in South Africa? You may never have heard of it, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Mainstream media tend to be heavily focused on the very latest, very shiniest phones on the market, or on the very coolest apps that feed these phones. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, it is all about what can dazzle the most. As a result, no one seems to notice the humble devices that truly underpin this market.

So, despite only 20% of phones in use in South Africa being smartphones, the category gets 99% of the attention. Yet, 32-million South Africans use devices called ‚feature phones‚ , the regular phones that can’t be upgraded.

Within this number lurks one of the great secrets of the South African cellular market, namely the most popular phone model in South Africa. No, not one of the BlackBerry messaging marvels. Certainly not the iPhone, with its huge iWallet requirement.

The most popular phone in South Africa is the ‚unknown‚ Samsung E250. Of course, it is not unknown to the vast number of young users who have bought it for just a few hundred rand. For their money, they get a slide-out phone with an FM radio, music player, camera, Web browser, stopwatch, memory card slot, Bluetooth, USB port, Java games ‚Ķ

The only thing it doesn’t allow is multi-tasking. But you can listen to the radio ‚ at no cost ‚ while performing any other task.

It is possibly the only phone on the market that is more than five years old and is still being manufactured today. It was introduced in 2006, but is still so popular today, particularly in South Africa, that the production line continues to churn it out, in an updated E250i version.

Total sales in South Africa to date: 4,5-million. That is about the total of all BlackBerry models ever sold in South Africa.

It’s not the only ‚unknown‚ phone that is better known at the lower end of the market than any BlackBerry. Several low-cost Nokia models also make the grade here. The 5130 XpressMusic, a basic smartphone focused on music, probably comes close to the E250, both in low cost and in high sales volumes.

But the real power of Nokia’s market share comes from its broad range of low-cost phones that meet the needs of almost any category of user in lower income groups. The 1200 range, in particular, is aimed at first-time users, or those with only basic needs and understanding of a phone’s features. And it has been more in demand than any smartphone.

The popularity of these phones is often simply a case of the right phone for the right market.

The E250 became Samsung’s first single phone model to reach 30-million sales around the world. It achieved the first 10-million sakes in just ten months, showing that South Africa was part of a global trend.

Says Deon Liebenberg, MD of Samsung South Africa, ‚During the E250 launch in 2006, over 30 000 units were sold immediately. Half a decade later, we are still witnessing a steady sales pattern with regards to this product.‚

Another hugely popular feature-rich phone from the same stable, the Star, or S52330, took just six months to reach the 10-million mark globally after it was launched into the youth market in 2007, and remains hugely popular in South Africa. It has also passed the 30-million mark worldwide (by way of comparison, the flagship Samsung Galaxy S II high-end smartphone just reached 20-million).

Both phones allow the user to download and install the Opera Mini browser. Because Opera is open with its user numbers, it offers a fascinating insight into phone trends across Africa. And it confirms the popularity of these low-cost phones.

Opera Mini figures for June 2011 showed that, of the top ten handsets using the Opera Mini browser in South Africa, number 1 was the Nokia 5130, number 5 the Samsung E250i, and number 10 the original E250.

In Zambia, strangely, the E250 was number one on the list.

The astonishing thing about these phones is that they attract no media buzz whatsoever. Because American analysts are narrowly obsessed with smartphone market share, they are oblivious to the phones that shape the global market. As a result, their commentary is not only irrelevant to developing markets, but entirely ignorant.

Like the little train that could, these little phones confound all preconceptions.

*Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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