It’s easy to take technology for granted, especially in a developed country with widespread access to fast internet and powerful devices. But across emerging economies in South America, Africa and Asia, it’s a different story.

While internet use in these regions might have lagged historically, it’s seen a rapid increase in recent years. An explosion in smartphones and mobile internet has generated a vast wave of users venturing online for the first time.

Of course, these rapidly expanding markets offer massive opportunities for technology providers. But they also pose their own very distinct challenges for developers in established tech-hubs like the UK. If you’re building an app for ‘the next billion’, you need to think very carefully about the needs of these new users.

What is the next billion?

This new cohort of users has been dubbed ‘the next billion’ by Google. The search giant is leading the charge when it comes to internet users in emerging markets. It makes sense, considering that Android is by far the most popular smartphone platform worldwide, with over two billion users.

About 75 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Europeans are connected to the internet. Compare this to other regions such as Mexico and Brazil at around 50 percent, and sub-Saharan Africa at just 22 percent. Clearly, there’s a divide – but one that’s closing rapidly.

In cities like São Paulo, Lagos and New Delhi, relatively cheap smartphones are widely available from a variety of sources, including street vendors. Combine this with ever-increasing connectivity and a rapid fall in the cost of mobile data, and you’ve got a whole new generation of internet users.

For the next billion, ‘the internet’ means services and applications accessed almost exclusively on mobile devices. This makes the design of mobile apps – both web-based and native – all the more crucial. So when it comes to optimising your app for emerging markets, we need to explore several key considerations.

Connectivity: keep it offline-friendly

Yes, connectivity is increasing at breakneck pace in emerging markets, but it’s still far from perfect. Mobile internet is growing faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else, and there are countries like Kenya that boast overall internet speeds faster than the US. But in the vast majority of rural areas, basic reception, let alone mobile internet, can be severely lacking (a problem familiar to anyone who spends much time in the British countryside).

Even in cities, mobile internet signal can be poor, and while speeds are increasing, superfast internet isn’t something that springs up overnight. In many regions, broadband and Wi-Fi are relatively rare, and experts predict that over 10 percent of users in emerging markets will still be limited to 2G networks in 2020.

This means apps need to be offline-friendly, providing as much functionality as possible without an internet connection. For users, ‘graceful degradation’ delivers a far better experience by giving them access to some features and content while offline – with smart use of caching, for example.

Data: lower your app’s appetite

While the cost of data has dropped dramatically, multi-GB plans remain unaffordable for many users in emerging markets. In India for example, 500MB costs about 17 hours of minimum-wage earnings.

In markets like the UK and US, it’s almost taken for granted that smartphones come with a hefty package of mobile data. And if it runs out, there’s always Wi-Fi, right? As previously outlined, this is hardly a given in emerging markets.

Data-guzzling apps aren’t going to fly, so optimisation is essential. By giving the next billion users the biggest bang for their buck, you can make your app far more practical in emerging markets. While it can be tricky to balance data requirements with a quality experience, features like low data usage modes can be invaluable to users on a tight budget.

Hardware: get it running on a toaster

In most places, it’s not hard to get your hands on a smartphone. But the average handset in an emerging economy isn’t the latest Galaxy S. In fact, the vast majority are fairly low-end devices.

Your app may be buttery-smooth on an iPhone 8, but if it runs like garbage on a bargain-basement Android, there’s a problem. Devices with small, low-res screens and as little as 512MB RAM are common in emerging markets. Getting your app running well and looking good for low-spec users is vital if it’s going to be a widespread hit.

And it’s not just about performance. Cheaper smartphones don’t come with a lot of internal storage, so keeping your app’s install size down is also a must.

Power: don’t be a battery-sucker

Easy access to electricity is another luxury we take for granted. Things are improving, but in many parts of the world smartphone owners don’t have power sources in their homes. And the household electricity that is available isn’t always reliable, with many communities experiencing regular outages.

All this results in quite different behaviour around phone charging. When your only access to phone charge is a communal generator a mile down the road, power conservation becomes a top priority. It may be hard to believe, but some users in emerging markets actually turn their phones off.

For your app, this makes energy efficiency critical. When an application sucks your battery dry and you’re left without a phone for a few hours, it’s annoying. But for large numbers of users who go days without a recharge, power-hungry apps can be borderline unusable.

Apps for emerging markets: who’s doing it right?

A good way to get a feel for best practices is to look at existing apps successfully optimised for emerging markets. Some of the most popular apps in these territories are the same as everywhere else: Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, the list goes on.

All of these apps live up to the demands of emerging markets in terms of offline functionality, data usage, low-end performance and power consumption. On the development side, a lot of thought has clearly gone into their optimisation.

Available to download but still in development, YouTube Go is an attempt to slim-down the ubiquitous video platform for the limitations of emerging markets. Features enable the user to strictly control how much data is used per video, allowing content to be either streamed or downloaded. Weighing in at just 9MB, the app is also optimised to work on older versions of Android, weaker hardware and slower connections.

Talking of Android, the operating system will itself soon be available as a stripped-down version for improved performance on low-end devices. Android Go will require significantly less memory, storage and data to run. It’s expected to become the default OS for any device running with 1GB RAM or less.

Then there are utility apps designed for very specific tasks. A recent example is Plantix, a smartphone app that helps farmers identify the diseases and pests affecting their crops. With a particular focus on the Indian market, the development team has created a unique tool that has already seen widespread use.

For any developers keen to start building for the next billion, Google offers a range of guidance and resources. This is an excellent place to get started, whether you’re looking to convert an existing application for the needs of emerging markets, or beginning a completely new project.

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