One of my favorite ever headlines from the technology press was in Wired almost a decade ago: “Charities Say No to Obsolete Crap.”
The story was about the reluctance of charitable organizations to take outdated computers, even as gifts, but the principle is broader than that: just because someone doesn’t have a lot of disposable income, it doesn’t mean they’ll accept any old junk as long as it’s free – or very cheap.
Nokia’s new line of Asha handsets, announced this week, shows a firm belief in this principle. The lowest end model in the line, the QWERTY Asha 200, has an estimated retail price of EUR 60 excluding taxes and subsidies, and the line extends to the Asha 303, with a capacitive touch screen and a price tag of EUR 115.
Clearly these aren’t the cheapest phone you can find in the developing world. They’re not even the cheapest Nokia phones. But that’s not their point. The Asha line (the name is derived from Hindi for “hope”) is built on the belief – which I share – that there are a lot of people in developing countries who are willing to stretch financially to get things that will make a genuine difference to their lives.
An objection that I’ve heard raised at this point goes something like “If you can make phone calls and send texts on a EUR 20 Shenzhen Special, what ‘genuine difference’ is that extra EUR 40 going to buy?”
To that objection, two rejoinders:
1) From what I could tell, the Asha phones are solidly built. They will be making calls and sending texts long after cheaper phones have been recycled for parts.
2) But rejoinder #1 is just economics: total cost of ownership. It may be true, but most people don’t really think that way. The rejoinder that is really at the heart of the business case for Asha is this: people who can find a way to afford a phone that feels better in the hand, that looks better when they show it to friends, that has a better speaker and better graphics, are going to feel that their money was well spent.
And who am I to say it wasn’t? Nobody in the North who spends the Apple premium to get an iPhone is doing so from some utilitarian calculus of price/performance over time. Why should we apply different standards to people in the South?