KaiOS Feature Phone Business Model And Why It Matters So Much

KaiOS is a mobile operating system built on the ashes of the discontinued Mozilla OS. Indeed, KaiOS has developed a robust standalone mobile operating system that turns feature phones (so-called “dumb phones”) into smartphones-like phones.

As feature phones powered by KaiOS have access to mobile apps, connectivity and voice search. KaiOS feature phone business model wants to bring connectivity and the digital revolution to those developing countries (like India and Africa) that have missed out on the smartphone wave due to too high costs of those devices.

Besides, KaiOS might be well suited for the IoT revolution!

Background story

A few years back the Mozilla Community created B2G OS (Boot to Gecko), a standalone operating system. That project was discontinued but being created by Mozilla; all its code was open source. From that open source code starts the story of KaiOS.

In 2016 A San Diego-based startup, KaiOS started its take over of the mobile operating system market (in particular India) with a “fork.” In GitHub (a software development platform) a fork is the copy of a repository (a digital directory where you can access a project and all its versions). 

Thus, a discontinued project (Mozilla’s B2G OS) became the foundation for KaiOS. Today KaiOS has become the operating system of former “dumb phones” (so-called feature phones) that this mobile operating system transforms into smartphones!

Indeed, KaiOS gained a 15% market share in India in a very short period according to DeviceAtlas. A primary reason for Its popularity was the success of the “Jio phone” which came prepackaged with KaiOS. 

Fast forward 2018, Google invested 22 million dollars in KaiOS and for a few good reasons. But before we get to that, let’s look at KaiOS and what makes it so unique. 

RelatedHow Does Google Make Money? It’s Not Just Advertising!

A glance at the feature phone market 

A feature phone is usually defined as a phone that lacks the capabilities of a smartphone. In short, that is the phone we knew before smartphones became the norm:



While those feature phones might well be defined as “dumb phones” they are not such – potentially – anymore. Indeed, what makes KaiOS such an interesting project is that with its mobile operating system can transform a dumb phone into a smartphone.

We don’t see these phones anymore in developed countries (except for Nokia’s Banana Phone). However, the feature phone market is a big one in India and Africa. According to counterpointresearch.com in India, the smartphone market remained flat in 2018 compared to 2017, while the feature phone market grew quite fast.

This makes the feature phone market quite interesting, but there is even more to it in KaiOS case. Let’s first look at this mobile operating system.

KaiOS in a nutshell

As pointed out on KaiOS blog:

At Kai, our goal is to bridge the divide between the billions of people in emerging markets who still don’t have basic internet access, as well as those in more established markets that do. As a result, we will make internet access available to all, regardless of whether people are uncomfortable with advanced technology, don’t own a smartphone, or can’t afford one.

That’s where and why KaiOS started from. KaiOS, therefore, has the objective of allowing people that can’t afford a smartphone to have the same basic features, which will give people using feature phones apps that are also available on smartphones, and even access to voice search.

As pointed out by the KaiOS team, its operating system, while based on Mozilla discontinued project it “has been developed into something much more robust and expanded than the original Firefox OS. Think of us as distant cousins, not siblings nor children.

The critical ingredient of KaiOS is that it brings “support of 4G/LTE, GPS, and Wi-Fi, as well as HTML5-based apps and longer battery life, to non-touch devices.

In other words, KaiOS has an optimized user interface which even though brings smart features to “dumb phones” it does that by requiring little battery, memory than another operating system while bringing to those feature phones social media, navigation, and other apps similar to a real smartphone!

Where does the name KaiOS come from?

As reported on KaiOS website, “Kai” originates from the Chinese word for open: 开 (kāi).” Thus, the “open operating system” in the sense of giving final access to billions of people to the digital revolution.

In short, KaiOS brings connectivity to phones that otherwise would have been cut out of this revolution. Therefore, more and more people in emerging and developing countries will finally have that access.

KaiOS market share

According to gs.statcounter.com KaiOS has become the third mobile operating system worldwide:


Source: gs.statcounter.com

Its success can be primarily attributed to the success of the JioPhone, a feature phone which sold pretty well in India. This partnership was further sealed when in 2018, Reliance Retail, the consumer goods arm of Reliance Industries bought 16% of KaiOS.

As reported on indianexpress.com:

Highlighting the fact that JioPhone is already a meaningful contributor Reliance Jio’s growth, a recent survey estimates that total JioPhones sold so far could be close to around 40 million. A survey by Credit Suisse on the Indian Telecom Sector said as suggested by recent media reports, JioPhone had 36 per cent share of the feature phone market for January-March quarter of 2018 on an expanded market base.

The Jio Phone partnership has proved quite successful for several reasons, and the primary reason is given by the fact that KaiOS makes available in Jio Phones apps and features available on smartphones. Another compelling reason is voice search!

KaiOS and voice search

An interesting aspect of dumbphones powered by KaiOS is the ability to easily activate the Google Assistant and its voice search capabilities:

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