MessagePhone: an affordable smartphone for the masses

Messaging software vendor brings about latest developments in the smartphone market

The latest smartphone for a mass market has been unveiled not by Apple or Nokia or any other recognizable consumer electronics company but by a messaging software vendor that services mobile carriers.

U.K.-based Synchronica, which provides server-based e-mail, messaging and synchronization software for carriers, Wednesday announced what it calls the MessagePhone. The two models, which look strikingly like traditional BlackBerry handsets, are designed for users in a very specific, but very large, market: emerging or developing nations, where PCs are rarer than hen's teeth, and monthly incomes may be scarcely greater than the price of a U.S. smartphone and carrier plan.

Synchronica specializes in dealing with carriers and network operators, offering them white-label mobile messaging services based on the Synchronica Mobile Gateway software, which supports a wide range of industry standards for push e-mail and related services, which are available on cell phones from low- to high-end. Carrier customers include a range of mobile operators among former Soviet Republics, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Central and South America (the software is also available as an enterprise package).

Synchronica is leveraging its carrier contacts, and its own infrastructure products, with the two mobile phones. The MessagePhone comes loaded with push e-mail, synchronization, mobile instant messaging, the Bolt full HTML server-enabled Web browser and access to social networking sites, all built-in and activated via a simple sign-up process facilitated by a wizard program on the phone. They support a wide range of corporate and Internet mail systems, protocols and synchronization.

The phones themselves, compared to the iPhone and recent products such as the Palm Pre, Motorola Droid and the Google Nexus One, seem almost like throwbacks. The Java-enabled, candy-bar styled MessagePhones have a 2.2-inch color LCD screen (non-touch), full QWERTY keyboard, a 1.3-megapixel camera, SD card memory expansion, a personal information manager, USB connection and optional Bluetooth radio.

The two MessagePhone models differ mainly in their cellular radios and memory. The QS150 supports tri-band GPRS-GSM, and has 10MB of user memory; the QS200 has a faster CPU, quadband GPRS/EDGE-GSM cellular, and 32MB of user memory. Both offer 5.5 hours talk time, and 17 days standby time.

Such phones would create hardly a ripple of interest among sophisticated and well-off North American and European users. But they are exactly what a large segment of users in emerging economies are looking for, says Carsten Brinkschulte, CEO and co-founder of Synchronica.

These target users typically have a monthly income in the US$300-500 range, and spend about $12 per month on prepaid SIM cards for a basic, voice cell phone. They usually rely on an Internet café or similar facility for Internet access when needed.

For such users, the MessagePhones, which can be priced as low as $99, offer cost-effective voice, Internet data access and messaging services all in one device, from a local carrier.

And Synchronica won't be selling or advertising these phones itself. It will be in the carriers' interests to offer the phones as low-cost, but highly functional smartphones in high-growth markets, Brinkshulte says. The MessagePhones are designed and manufactured by KC Mobile, an emerging Korean vendor of white-label mobile phones. Brightstar, a multibillion-dollar global distributor, will be the channel between KC Mobile, local carriers and their subscribers.

Brinkschulte says subsidiaries of two large carriers will be offering the MessagePhones to customers "in the coming weeks."

It's an ambitious scheme, deftly playing on the paranoia of mobile operators, which fear their customers' loyalty and money is being poached by handset makers such as Apple and Nokia, as well as by Internet service portals like Google.

In some respects, it's a mirror image of Apple's iPhone strategy. Instead of offering a technological breakthrough smartphone that's affordable by a relatively small percentage of all users worldwide, offer an affordable product that relies on proven technologies, and that can be quickly put to work as a mobile Internet device by many more users.

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John Cox

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