KaiOS is the most popular mobile operating system you probably haven’t heard of. Instead of designing software for full-blown smartphones, Hong Kong–based KaiOS Technologies (pronounced ky-O-S) has exceeded 150 million global users by powering what it calls the “smart feature phone.” Far more spartan than iPhones and Samsung Galaxy models, these devices—which sell for as little as $15—run must-have apps such as YouTube, Google Maps, Facebook, and WhatsApp, with more available from the KaiOS app store.
KaiOS’s success in India (where it’s the No. 2 mobile platform after Android), Indonesia, Rwanda, and Nigeria has now piqued the interest of U.S. corporate giants. In 2019, Google participated in the company’s $50 million Series B round (adding to the $22 million it had already invested), and Disney struck a deal to bring its characters to KaiOS phones in the form of games, wallpapers, and e-books. “This is a key strategy for many of the largest companies: reaching the next billion users,” says KaiOS CEO Sebastien Codeville. “Today, the only way to reach them is with KaiOS, because these users cannot afford a smartphone.”
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A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.