road-less-travelled-imgNews has broken that Obi Worldphone, the smartphone company whose chief claim to fame to date has been that it was co-founded by John Sculley, “former head of Apple and Pepsi-Cola and an international investor in consumer technology companies,” has launched a pair of “high-quality, premium-designed smartphones priced at an exceptional value to attract discerning young people in fast-growth markets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.” These devices, the Worldphone SF1 and Worldphone SJ1.5, offer 5-inch high-definition Corning Gorilla Glass 3 screens and the current Lollipop version of Android’s phone OS, along with, in Sculley’s words, “the best of Silicon Valley – innovations in design, state-of-the-art technology and high standards for manufacturing,” infused “into beautiful, powerful tools at attractive prices.”

Those attractive prices are, respectively, “$199 USD for the 2 GB RAM / 16 GB internal memory version” of the SF1, and $129 for the SJ1.5. In the latter case, we’re still talking about a 3G smartphone, albeit lacking the SF1’s 4G/LTE capabilities, with Android 5.1 Lollipop, a MediaTek MT6580 1.3GHz quad core processor, “1 GB RAM and 16 GB internal storage; expandable up to an additional 32 GB with micro SD,” and a 128 x720 pixel screen. Those are pretty respectable specs at such prices, and I certainly wouldn’t pass up this phone at that price point. But is it enough?

The reason I ask this for Obi Worldphone and many other smartphone manufacturers targeting the horizon opportunities of emerging markets is that generic OEMs and other, predominantly Chinese, device makers are pushing the price/performance envelope for smartphones all the time.

You can see the compelling demographic argument for smartphone makers. Obi quotes Tim Bajarin, president of San Jose market analysis firm Creative Strategies, Inc., as saying: “Over the next three years 1 billion users will upgrade from low-end, starter smartphones to models with more power and greater functionality. The Obi Worldphone no-compromise design and aggressive pricing makes it very appealing to this audience as the market for smartphones expands and the upgrade market for smartphones accelerates.”

No argument with the first part of that statement – but the second? Right now, I can buy, in Hungary, the Navon Mizu D501, successor to my aging Navon Mizu M500, for exactly $100. Fine, it only has a 854×480 pixel screen, and the preceding KitKat 4.4 version of the Android OS, but the chipset is a MediaTek MT6582M, from the same family as the Obi Worldphone SJ1.5, and the screen is the same size. Is a cost-conscious emerging markets customer really going to rate the extra $29 as worth the difference? And how long will it take for global emerging markets manufacturers to push their specs up to the same level as Obi Worldphone at lower price points?

All in all, you can understand why Obi Worldphone is making great play of its Valley roots. “Born in Silicon Valley, an Obi Worldphone is a pure expression of what to expect from the world’s most innovative place,” says the company blurb. “Actually, it’s much more than a place – it’s a mindset.” Will that mindset sell in the cut-throat, ruthlessly pragmatic emerging markets? We’ll see.


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