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Smartphones: Can they catch on in the developing world?

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A member of the media examines the Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Nexus smartphone, running Google Inc.'s Ice Cream Sandwich Android operating, system in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. Samsung will begin selling the first mobile phone run on Google's new operating system next month, counting on facial-recognition security to help challenge Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

At Slate, Matt Yglesias rolls out a chart that shows the astonishing adoption rates of both Apple's iOS and Google's Android. So yes, both mobile operating systems have done more than caught on — they've taken over the world.

The developed world, that is. And this is where I think Yglesias overreaches:

In terms of adoption rates, iOS blew the previous entrants out of the water and now Android is setting a new even more amazing record-breaking pace. This is going to be an especially important development in relatively poor countries while mobile connectivity is generally better than wireline, so the availability of relatively cheap relatively powerful mobile devices is a total gamechanger. 

He's making the healthy assumption that these operating systems are going to be adopted in the developing world. iOS runs on only Apple devices — and Apple devices are very expensive, even by developed-world standards. 

Android stands a better chance, since it's effectively free (it's up to the carrier and devicemaker to figure out what to charge for the phone). But it still needs to run on smartphones. And it's unclear whether smartphones are really what the developing world will end up buying. We're talking about, as Matt says, "relatively poor" countries where an apptastic smartphone might not be all that compelling — certainly not enough to spend a huge amount earnings on the device and the data charges. 

Far more likely, I think, is the emergence of a robust developing world market for cheap commodity phones and dirt cheap plans, probably prepaid or month-to-month, with the emphasis on low-cost services like texting, so that payments can be transacted in the simplest way possible. This is already taking shape. 

In this context, Nokia and Research in Motion — the smartphone also-rans — might be better positioned than Apple or Google. Still a gamechanger. Just not the gamechanger for the current gamechangers in the developed world.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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