Huawei’s HarmonyOS is seen as the only credible challenger to Android and iOS in the mobile operating system duopoly, even though the prospects of this third-horse outsider will be limited almost everywhere except China. However, if you look hard enough, you can just about make out another horse coming up the rear, in the form of KaiOS – a Hong Kong-based outfit founded in 2018 with ambitions of stealing market share from Android in developing regions.
Given this target market, hearing that the Linux-based KaiOS is making strides in the US, riding a wave of rising video app usage on the platform, therefore caught us off guard.
This comes in the form of a partnership with multi-cultural on-demand programming provider Sivoo, which is launching its SivooTV streaming app on 150 million KaiOS-enabled handsets, starting in the US and Nigeria before committing to a global rollout in the 150 countries where KaiOS devices are present.
Low-end devices running KaiOS have been embraced in economies like India, boosted by its extremely young population which has proven a breeding ground for video streaming apps such as the homegrown service Zee5, which became available on KaiOS feature phones from Indian MNO Reliance Jio back in early 2019. If SivooTV experiences anything near the growth of Zee5 on the back of this launch, then the content provider could be about to scale beyond its wildest dreams.
While this trend is burgeoning in city hubs across countries like India, mobile-first video streaming is also projected to spread like wildfire to more rural regions over the coming years.
Behind the scenes, Sivoo says it handles all video encoding and transcoding in-house, as well as managing content licensing which includes a range of entertainment options from third-party content providers.
KaiOS Technologies, which is backed by electronics giant TCL among others, envisages something of a shared mission with Sivoo – one entrenched in closing the digital divide. The companies believe this partnership has come at a perfect moment in time, when KaiOS can address user demand for access to video streaming content on affordable devices and in a wide range of languages.
On that front, SivooTV has selected titles offered in 15 languages, which it says is particularly essential for KaiOS users with limited literacy. However, it better work on pumping up the number of supported languages ahead of the upcoming worldwide launch of SivooTV.
In 2019, KaiOS raised a second round of funding, worth $50 million and led by Cathay Innovation, bringing its total raised to $70 million. Despite the potential threat to the expansion of Google’s Android implementation in emerging markets, the search giant actually participated in both funding rounds for KaiOS, so perhaps sees it as a possible future partner or complementary platform (Google’s own stripped-down platforms for emerging economies, particularly India, have had limited impact so far). Other significant participants in the second round were TCL, Chinese owner of the Alcatel brand, and Orange, a significant operator in emerging markets, especially in Africa.
KaiOS is targeting the 3 billion people still lacking internet connectivity, through working closely with operators in product innovation and business models, with both Reliance Jio and Orange opening doors to the technology.
Based on HTML5 and other open web technologies, feature phones running the KaiOS platform require limited memory while promising to still offer a rich user experience. The real selling point of KaiOS is the promise of smartphone functionality for a feature phone form factor and price, with social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook come pre-loaded, as well as Google Assistant and Google Maps.
While the core product is an OS which could be deployed on any hardware, it has its own reference designs and handsets to try to seed uptake – even the GPS model costs only about $30. A great deal of effort has been put into local customization and into the user experience, the firm says, to ensure it is intuitive and accessible even for people with limited literacy, with no previous experience of electronic devices, or with any type of alphabet and script.
All this sounds logical and reasonable, but also remarkably reminiscent of other initiatives to create an open alternative to Android and iOS. In most cases, the aim has been to get operators on board, especially in countries like India where MNOs have the biggest influence on mobile user experiences and are the largest channel to market. And targeting first-time users or those looking to upgrade from a featurephone is a good way to avoid head-to-head collision with Apple and with some of the biggest Android handset vendors, which tend to focus on the slightly higher margins of the midrange as well as the highly competitive high end.
Important as operator backing is, these challenger operating systems must get the support of large handset makers, in a market which is consolidating. Huawei is developing its own OS; Samsung has Android variants for its low end phones. There are smartphone makers, such as Oppo or India’s Spice and MicroMAX, which are targeting the unconnected with low cost devices, but they tend to use their own stripped-down versions of Android. KaiOS will need to sign up several of these large suppliers to succeed in achieving the scale which is essential to any OS, to build a sufficiently wide community of users and developers to make it desirable for large MNOs and manufacturer.