Emerging markets are where it's happening these days in IT, especially in the mobile segment. According to Gartner , smartphone sales to emerging markets grew at a 63 percent rate in Q3 compared to 46 percent globally. Not surprisingly, the new wave of mobile Linux platforms  like Jolla's MeeGo-based Sailfish OS, Mozilla's Firefox OS, and The Linux Foundation-hosted Tizen, are initially targeting these same, "Bottom of the Pyramid" (BoP) consumers.
By the time they reach market, however, they may find that another Linux-based OS has beaten them to the punch. Android is leading the way in low-cost smartphones, and increasingly, tablets, aimed at the new, budget-conscious middle classes in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and other developing nations.
Low-cost Android smartphones are quickly supplanting Nokia's Symbian phones in BoP markets. According to Gartner, Android took 72.4 percent of Q3 global smartphone shipments, up from 52.5 percent the year before while Symbian dropped from 16.9 percent to 2 percent.
Earlier this year, NPD In-Stat projected that by 2015, Android will represent 80 percent of the Indian, African, and Chinese smartphone markets combined. In October, NPD  projected that under-$150 smartphone shipments will double every year through 2016, while low-cost Android phones will grow from 2 percent of smartphone shipments in 2012 to 29 percent in 2016.
The Linux contenders believe they can undercut Android pricing with the help of HTML5 and processor optimizations. While they have a better shot at doing so than proprietary systems such as Windows Phone or iOS, Android will be tough to dislodge.
Android Advances in Africa
The first big Android success story in developing nations was Huawei's Ideos phone, which has taken Africa by storm over the last two years. Now Samsung, ZTE, and others are also aggressively targeting underserved markets with budget Android handsets.
One advantage Android has over the prevalent feature phones is the profusion of apps, especially new ones being written specifically for BoP consumers. Google's 2011 Android Developer Challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa attracted considerable attention for the platform among African developers.
Android is also driving a growing number of mobile development programs launched by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, the Grameen Foundation has found success with its Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) initiative  launched in Uganda with the help of Kiva.org. The program equips community-nominated farming leaders called "CKWs" with Ideos phones, made available via loan, purchase, and rent-to-buy programs. The phones are equipped with custom-made Android apps that offer weather forecasts, tips on agricultural practices and crop disease, market price trackers, and other tools to help match crops with buyers.
Some 62,000 Ugandan farmers have benefited from advice provided by over 850 CKWs, each earning up to $25 a month, says the foundation. In addition, CKWs take surveys that the foundation then sells to other NGO's to fine-tune their development programs.
Sri Lanka-based NGO Sarvodaya-Fusion has launched the second year of a similar Android-focused Smart Village  initiative. Smart Village is using Google-donated Nexus phones to help Sri Lanka's rural poor launch micro-enterprises, improve education, and provide greater access to information.
As noted in a recent CACM  story on BoP technology, some of the best innovations are coming from the BoP world itself. For example, in Kenya and Tanzania, consumers took a mobile micro-financing program started by Vodafone's Safaricom provider and turned it into a generic mobile payment system. The SMS-based platform has evolved into M-Pesa, one of the world's most successful mobile payments systems. M-Pesa has spread to South Africa, Afghanistan, and India, and has inspired a supporting Android app called pesaDroid .
Frogtek drives Android PoS in Latin America
In Mexico, a startup called Frogtek is marketing a low-cost, Android-based point-of-sale (PoS) product called Tiendatek . Designed for micro-entrepreneurs who cannot afford mainstream PoS systems, Tiendatek includes an Android tablet or smartphone for recording payments, combined with a card-reader peripheral and a barcode reader. The system connects with Frogtek's cloud-based Tiendatek analytics and inventory suite.
So far, Frogtek has signed up more than 300 customers in Mexico, according to CTO Guillermo Caudevilla in an email interview, and the company plans to spread to Colombia and other markets. With the help of Kiva.org, microfinance loans are being offered, but thanks in part to Android, Tiendatek is already cheap enough for many customers to afford on their own, says Caudevilla.
"Android was our best option for a low-cost, powerful platform which was at the same time easy to deal with for programmers," said Caudevilla. "The fact that Android is open source and offers a huge device selection has helped a lot."
Cheap Tablets Change OLPC Plans
If low-cost Android smartphones are leading the charge in developing countries, tablets are not far behind. A growing number of Android tablets are available for under $100, including Ainol's $99 Novo 7 Basic, a big seller in China. One stripped-down Coby Kyros model  can be had for as low as $84.
The recent drop in Android tablet prices have encouraged a change in strategy by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), which has distributed some 3 million Linux-based XO netbooks to poor students around the world. Last week, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte told IDG News' Agam Shah  his organization has shelved plans to release its XO-3 tablet, which was set to run either Android or Sugar Linux. Instead, OLPC will likely resell third-party tablets, says Negroponte, while focusing primarily on educational software.
OLPC still expects to launch its touch-ready XO 4 Touch netbook in early 2013. Going forward, however, OLPC will work with vendors to help them ruggedize their devices and optimize them for poor rural environments, says the story.
"We had to build the [XO-1] laptop, but we do not have to build the tablet," Negroponte told Shah. "The need for OLPC may morph into something else."
Aakash 2 Awakens in India
Even an $80-$100 pricetag is beyond the means of most BoP consumers, not to mention their underfunded school systems. As OLPC found, however, governments can be persuaded to subsidize technology for schools if it's seen as an investment in future economic success.
Last week, Canada-based Datawind unveiled its second attempt at a low-cost, subsidized Android tablet for Indian schoolchildren. The Aakash 2  will be sold to the Indian government at a price of $40.41, but will be subsidized to sell to Indian students and schoolteachers for $20, down from the original's $35 price.
The Aaakash 2 is a 7-inch, WiFi-only tablet running Android 4.0 on a 1GHz Cortex-A8 processor. For $6 more, plus a $2 per month wireless plan, users can tap into Aircell's widely available 2G GPRS cellular service using a GPRS-optimized UbiSurfer browser. Early previews have been kinder to the Aakash 2 than they were to the original, with Engadget calling it  "light years beyond" the typical cut-rate tablet.
How to Succeed in BoP
It takes more than low cost to succeed in BoP markets. Durability and battery life count for a lot, along with alternative power support. Because 3G and 4G services are rare and expensive, optimization for low-bandwidth networks with technologies like the Ubisurfer browser, also help.
An app suite called Blaast  for Java phones that was recently ported to Android , offers one solution to the bandwidth problem. Blaast uses a combination of compression and cloud-based processing to halve data usage, claims Finland-based Blaast. One early Blaast for Android rollout is being provided by Indonesian carrier XL on Sony Xperia J phones.
BoP technology initiatives often lack proper consideration for realities like spotty power and data coverage. Beyond such hardware considerations, BoP marketing efforts often fail due to a deeper misunderstanding of the customer, according to a recent Wordpress blog entry  on Africa's Emerging Consumer Markets by Niti Bhan.
First-world marketers often underestimate the competition that already exists, writes Bhan. Like many NGOs, corporate marketing teams can be blinded by their own good intentions, often incorrectly assuming BoP customers will be so grateful for the attention they will jump at any low-cost product. Overestimating brand awareness is another common pitfall, she adds.
Finally, many BoP consumers are turned off by an all-out focus on cost. "No one will aspire to buy the 'poor man’s product' if it means a clear signal of having failed to succeed," writes Bhan.
In India, for example, there's a thriving business in swapping out components from major smartphone brands with cheaper alternatives, thereby providing the status of a first-tier phone, albeit without the performance. No matter where you live, status counts.