Can Microsoft make it in Africa with the Huawei 4Afrika Windows Phone?

Once upon a time, Microsoft(s msft) could count on platform dominance around the world, because Windows ruled in the age of the desktop. In emerging economies that platform dominance was usually maintained through rampant ‘piracy’ of Windows – a fact that Microsoft could never openly condone, but from which it clearly benefited.
That was then, this is now. Mobile computing is now the growth business and, for those in emerging economies who previously never managed to get their hands on PC hardware, smartphones are their first computers. And what’s running on such handsets in Africa, the most untapped market of them all? Not Windows – which is why Microsoft has just launched a concerted campaign, called 4Afrika, to change that situation.

Windows Phones for Africa

The lynchpin of this scheme is the Huawei ‘4Afrika with Windows Phone 8’ device. Microsoft has already released lower-end Windows Phones in African markets, such as the Nokia(s NOK) Lumia 620, but those are relatively expensive – in Nigeria, for example, that device is expected to cost around $250. The Huawei 4Afrika phone will cost $150.
It would be interesting to know how heavily Microsoft is subsidizing this phone, because the Huawei 4Afrika is a variant of the $300 Ascend W1, which targets the European market. The 4Afrika phone has a 480×800-pixel screen, a dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon(s QCOM) processor, a 10mm-thick case and 4GB internal storage, along with front- and rear-facing cameras. Standby time – a big deal in markets where power can be unreliable or hard to come by – is rated at 420 hours.
According to a Microsoft blog post, the handset also comes preloaded with “custom apps created by African developers for African consumers”.
Not bad for the price, you may think. But look at the local prices for cheap smartphones – and by this I mean the likes of Nokia’s semi-smart Asha devices but also BlackBerry(s bbry) and Android phones – and you’ll see handsets priced around $80. That’s almost half the price of the Huawei 4Afrika.
According to Ian Fogg, senior principal analyst at IHS Screen Digest, that discrepancy could take the Huawei 4Afrika out of reach for many:

“This is a cheap smartphone for Windows Phone, but it’s still significantly more expensive than the entry-level Android smartphones in the market or the Nokia Asha devices, which Nokia are putting head-to-head with entry-level Android.”

However, Fogg pointed out that Microsoft’s tight reference platform for Windows Phone 8 meant the Huawei 4Afrika would give a much better experience than those cheaper Android phones, which may use cheaper and less powerful components.

Wider campaign

It’s also worth noting that 4Afrika is a scheme that goes beyond phones. Microsoft will also be working with authorities and ISPs in Kenya and elsewhere to deliver cheap wireless broadband using experimental white space technology and solar-powered base stations. The company will also launch an online hub in April for small businesses, giving them free services and, for some, free domain registration.
As Ali Faramaway, Microsoft’s VP for the Middle East and Africa, put it in a separate blog post:

“When we look at the world, many see China or the BRIC countries as the next big opportunity for growth. At Microsoft, we view the African continent as a game-changer in the global economy. We believe deeply in the potential of technology to change Africa, and we equally believe in the potential of Africa to change technology for the world.”

Whether or not Microsoft succeeds in ensuring that technology is Microsoft-based, is up for debate. But it’s certainly worth a shot and, if 4Afrika does really accelerate the rollout of connectivity on the continent, all the better.