You can teach an old feature phone new tricks.
Among the 6 billion mobile phones in the world, most aren't the smart kind, which means they can't run the hundreds of thousands of apps now available. And while there are efforts to make smartphones more affordable, that won't happen overnight.
In the meantime, Gour Lentell's Australia-based startup, BiNu, has a technology to help bridge the app divide -- software that can give feature phone users a Facebook or YouTube app experience without the need of a pricey iPhone or Android device.
By using BiNu's platform, owners of feature phones with basic Internet access can run simple versions of apps in seconds, even in areas with sluggish connections. So a farmer in Zimbabwe can look up soccer scores and post his reaction on Facebook almost immediately, without running up data fees or draining the phone's battery.
Lentell, who co-founded the company in 2008, says the average wireless device is 10 times slower than a wired one. That's why BiNu's app platform is designed for speed, with most of the heavy processing work done in the cloud.
Typically, BiNu can deliver a screen of text using less than a kilobyte of bandwidth, compared with about 9 kilobytes in an optimized mobile browser like Opera Mini or up to 100 kilobytes in a standard mobile browser, Lentell said.
"Our goal is instantaneous response times whenever possible," said Lentell, who grew up in Zimbabwe.
That speed and ease has allowed more than 5 million feature phone users in Nigeria, Turkey and elsewhere to start using social media, chat with friends, read religious texts and learn English from various apps on BiNu. That's up from 3.5 million last June.
In Pakistan and Mexico, the most popular application on BiNu is YouTube, while in Brazil it's Facebook, according to company data. In March, the most active user in Nigeria accessed BiNu for 153 hours and viewed 57,524 screens of information, yet only used 106 megabytes of mobile data. That compares with the 300 MB to 5 GB monthly data plans sold with an iPhone 5 on AT&T's network.
BiNu is gaining attention. The company has raised $7.6 million from investors, including TomorrowVentures, which is run by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.
About two-thirds of the world's population still doesn't have Internet access, and "the next billion activations of phones are pretty much going to be feature phones," said Brad Holden, a partner at TomorrowVentures. "These guys can increase the functionality of phones without sucking up all the bandwidth."
So far, BiNu generates revenues from market research on its users and selling customers access to premium content and services. It's also testing out advertising.
However, the company faces competition from some of the app makers it's helping to promote. To capture more consumers in the developing world, Facebook has an application designed for more basic phones from such companies as Nokia and LG Electronics. The app is available in markets including Romania, Tunisia and the Dominican Republic.
BiNu must also avoid becoming irrelevant as smartphones get cheaper and wireless access becomes faster and more widespread. And then there's the growing used-smartphone market. Sales of refurbished iPhone 4’s and 4S’s are booming among price-conscious shoppers, especially in fast-growing emerging markets, as my colleague Peter Burrows reported.
TomorrowVentures' Holden says BiNu could be useful for data-hungry smartphones, too. Already, about 15 percent of the company's subscribers are using Android devices.
"In my office in Palo Alto, a phone with BiNu worked faster than my phone," Holden said. "That's what is going to matter."