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The Rise and Success of KaiOS

Taken the meaning of "open-sourced" in Chinese("Kai"), KaiOS opened the new door to the $28 billion opportunities of the emerging market.

Jun 15, 2020 by Rao Fu
The Rise and Success of KaiOS

In a decade, as smartphones become a norm, iOS and Android have become the two dominant mobile operating systems, while Nokia's Symbian and Microsoft's Windows Phone were left behind, and even been forgotten.

However, one new mobile operating system has rapidly risen to prominence. It's called KaiOS.

KaiOS, taken the meaning of "open-sourced" in Chinese("Kai"), is a Linux-based mobile operating system. Unlike iOS and Android, KaiOS is designed for feature phones.

Based on HTML5, KaiOS brings apps to devices without a touch screen, and supports 4G, GPS, and Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, the system can run with a 256MB RAM, at the same time, it doesn't consume much battery. The minimum requirement on hardware makes room for a lower price, as a KaiOS-equipped mobile phone would cost as little as $20.

In 2017, you can even get a KaiOS phone for "free", plus unlimited traffic, if you live in India.

This was the marketing strategy of Mukesh Ambani, CEO of Reliance Jio. The customer spent 1500 rupees to buy a Jiophone(with KaiOS), but the money was a deposit, Jio promised to return them the fee three years later.

In 2018, one year after Jio promoted the "free phone" plan, JioPhone dominated the feature phone market in India, taking the 35.9% market share. After that, KaiOS becomes the second-largest mobile operating system in India, surpassing iOS. Today, KaiOS has a global market share of 0.2%, just a little bit behind the world's third-largest mobile OS Samsung.

In May 2019, KaiOS secured a $50 million Series B round of funding led by Cathay Innovation. Google and TCL also participated in this round.

According to Sebastien Codeville, CEO of KaiOS, their targeting audience is "the first time internet users in emerging markets."

Counterpoint's research found that feature phones still accounted for almost 25% of all handset shipments in Q3 of 2018. The study estimates that there is a $28 billion market opportunity in the years ahead.

“This is a key strategy for many of the largest companies: reaching the next billion users,” says Sebastien Codeville. “Today, the only way to reach them is with KaiOS, because these users cannot afford a smartphone.”

To this day, KaiOS has shipped over 135 million devices in 157 countries worldwide.

For first-time internet users

The Passage:What's the key issue it's designed to solve?

KaiOS:KaiOS is designed to provide a rich user experience on low-spec feature phone hardware, while retaining core smartphone functionalities like web browsing and support for popular apps.

The Passage:Why did KaiOS - an operating system designed for feature phones come out in 2017? How many people still use feature phones at that time?

KaiOS:Starting in 2016, we saw the opportunity to repurpose Firefox OS’s web-based technologies to create a new category of mobile devices that combine smartphone-level apps and internet browsing capabilities with the affordable hardware of feature phones. According to the GSMA, feature phones accounted for roughly half of all mobile connections in 2017. Even today, feature phones are incredibly popular in developing markets around the world and serve as an affordable means for staying in contact and conducting business.

The Passage:We found that "KaiOS is a Linux-based OS that seeks to bring 'smartphone-like functionalities to affordable phones'". Why did KaiOS choose the approach to bring 'smartphone-like functionalities' to feature phones, rather than making OS for cheap smartphones directly?

KaiOS:Smart feature phones are far more affordable than even budget-friendly smartphones, allowing us to better serve our target audience of first-time internet users in emerging markets. Affordability is key in this market segment, and we’re proud to deliver smartphone-level features on feature phone hardware through the web-based technologies of KaiOS.

Developing an easy-to-use mobile interface for first-time internet users is crucial, opening the door for more users to better understand and use our services and devices. An intuitive user interface with a traditional keypad in simple form factors creates a simple, easy-to-learn UX.

The Passage:What's the price range of KaiOS phones in India and in Africa? How much it could cheaper than the cheapest smartphones? How long would a typical KaiOS user usually keep the phone (not switching to another one)?

KaiOS:Entry-level smartphones retail for $50 or more in emerging markets, while KaiOS-enabled devices are often available for less than $20. We do not have specific data on the replacement cycle of KaiOS-enabled devices, but on average we see that feature phone users switch devices every 12-18 months.

The Passage:Since you called the KaiOS-phones as smart feature phones, it seems the user experience is not that from a smartphone, so, why don't you call a KaiOS phone "smartphone"? Do you try to avoid direct comparison to smartphones?

KaiOS:KaiOS-enabled devices don’t carry many of the features that people expect from smartphones, including a touch interface, high-end processors, or large memory resources. Designed with first-time internet users in mind, we focus on bringing essential smartphone features to a simple feature-phone form factor that’s easy to use and very efficient. Smartphones are designed to offer a high-end computing experience, while KaiOS-enabled devices focus on bridging users from zero connectivity to full-fledged 4G internet access.

An open-source system

The Passage:How much KaiOS is different from Nokia's SymbianOS?features, performance, marketing strategy, etc.

KaiOS:KaiOS is an open-source platform and the world’s first mobile OS for feature phones that includes a full-fledged store for popular apps and locally relevant content. Built on the web-based technologies of Firefox OS, it offers a rich UX and a web browser while also being relatively simple to develop for.

The Passage:When KaiOS users switch to smartphones, how would KaiOS keep these users staying in its system of internet services? If not possible, how would KaiOS keep the scale of its mobile internet services?

KaiOS:Our services are focused on smart feature phones, however, these devices serve as a valuable point of entry for our carrier partners, allowing them to migrate customers from legacy 2G to modern, more efficient 3G/4G connections.

The Passage:Was KaiOS designed to be closed? Can I install apps from an outside source? If I'm a developer, can I transfer my app from another system while it's compatible with KaiOS?

KaiOS:“Kai” originates from the Chinese word for open(开), since we’re open sourced! We’re always excited to welcome new apps and developers to KaiOS.

KaiOS apps are based on web technologies (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) and are processed by Gecko runtime. If you have written a web page you already know the basics of how to develop for KaiOS! We have a wide range of resources including a design guide, device emulator, reference apps, and documentation in our developer portal. Existing web app developers who want to develop for KaiOS can refer to these resources which provide a simple process for porting existing web apps to the KaiOS operating system. We also have guides demonstrating how to port apps from other operating systems to KaiOS.

The Passage:Doe KaiOS plan to develop an OS for smartphones? If not, how would you attract more developers to develop applications for KaiOS? Do you plan to promote more applications on KaiOS?

KaiOS:We make a wide range of resources for prospective KaiOS developers available both on our website and in person. We’ve partnered with local educational organizations and carriers including for loop, MTN, and Gebeya Talent to host developer workshops and digital literacy training, helping foster the next generation of developers around the world. We also launched a dedicated developer portal which serves as a trusted resource for anyone interested in developing for KaiOS in particular.

The Passage:Could HTML 5 break the barrier of applications and become a commonly used platform among different OS?

KaiOS:Web-based technologies including HTML 5 are perfectly suited for mobile devices. The flexibility and relative simplicity of developing web-based applications is part of what makes KaiOS run so well on limited hardware, and we think it’s only a matter of time before other operating systems and devices begin to leverage web apps to enhance their own cross-platform apps and digital experiences.

The Passage:How is it different from FirefoxOS and other OS on feature phones? Why was FirefoxOS stopped but KaiOS thrives?

KaiOS: Firefox OS incorporated similar web-based technologies, but was designed for smartphone hardware, and was ultimately discontinued. We are confident in the development and growth of KaiOS because we’ve learned from the past, and have a clear focus on the right type of users: people in emerging markets, as well as those in developed countries who are looking for affordable options outside of smartphone offerings.

Thrive in India, Next to Africa

The Passage:What's KaiOS's marketing strategy in the US, India and Africa, What are in common and what is tailored for the local market?

KaiOS:While our product strategy remains fairly consistent around the world, in the US we have a stronger focus on KaiOS-enabled devices as companion phones. These allow users to remain connected without the added distraction that comes with a smartphone. In Asia, LATAM and Africa on the other hand, we’re more focused on working with our carrier partners to make smart feature phones accessible to all, through affordable devices and subsidized data plans. It’s more common in these markets that a user is negatively impacted by the digital divide and that a KaiOS-enabled device serves their only access to the internet.

The Passage:How did KaiOS success in India? How did the partnership with Jio contribute to success?

KaiOS:Our partnership with Jio was crucial to the popularization of KaiOS in India. The combination of affordable yet capable devices packaged with inexpensive data plans opened the door for tens of millions of new Indian consumers to join the digital revolution. Widespread adoption leads to KaiOS becoming the second most popular mobile operating system in India, second only to Android.

According to Counterpoint Research, “Out of more than 100 million subscribers that Reliance Jio added since the Jio Phone launch in late 2017, the KaiOS powered 4G smart feature phone contributes close to half of those net additions.” Together, KaiOS and Reliance Jio have built a digital solution that has quickly become the blueprint for smart feature phone deployment worldwide.

The Passage:How much time is left for feature phones in India and Africa market?

KaiOS:Billions of people around the world remain disconnected from the internet, which means there is a large demand for affordable, accessible smart feature phones in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. More than 800 million people are impacted by the digital divide in Africa alone, so we have much work to do as we strive to make the internet’s valuable digital resources available to all.

The Passage:Has the revenue directly from users reached its upper limit? When it reaches the limit, how would KaiOS enlarge its market? How would other players affect the market?

KaiOS:We’re continuing to work with both current and prospective carrier partners to bring KaiOS-powered devices to new markets around the world. There are still billions of people around the world impacted by the digital divide, and we’re excited to continue expanding into the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Much of our revenue comes from in-app purchases and advertising, some through service fees charged to partners (e.g. backend service like FOTA), so we continue to expand our ecosystem by bringing in essential services and relevant content to our users.

The Passage:How would 5G challenge KaiOS? Where it would affect KaiOS most? What changes would KaiOS make when 5G becomes a norm?

KaiOS:We’re discussing how Kai could play a role in 5G; however, we’re early in the exploratory phase so we don’t have specific information to share at this time.

The Passage:Except for mobile phones, would you like to expand your market to other electronics like tablets, internet TV, or other IoT devices?

KaiOS:We continue to explore additional innovations and improvements for KaiOS, including new services and form factor variations to cater to different needs, but we don’t have specific information to share at this time.

Rao Fu

Rao Fu is a Beijing-based tech reporter. She attracted to the big names as well as the small startups at the content consumer industry. She can be reached at

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