The Four-Dollar Flagship

Ringing Bells’ Freedom 251 Targets the Indian Masses

This week, an Indian start-up called Ringing Bells unveiled a new smartphone which the company said it will sell for 251 rupees ($4) in an effort to open up the country’s telecom infrastructure to the masses. The new smartphone, the Freedom 251, is expected to attract feature phones users who are looking to upgrade to a smartphone. Ringing Bells said it will start taking orders for the device on 18 February. At $4, the Freedom 251 has become the company’s flagship phone — not for its specs, but for its unrealistically low price.

This 3G Android Lollipop 5.1 smartphone sports a four-inch IPS display, a 3.2 megapixel rear camera, a 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera and a 1.3 GHz quad-core processor with 1GB RAM, 8GB of internal memory and a card slot. The phone comes with social media apps already installed, including Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, as well as a number of apps useful to women, farmers and other specific users.

The promise of super-cheap smartphones for rural India has long been encouraged by the Indian government. In the past, initiatives to bring a surge of devices to the masses have not met with much success. For example, Google’s Android One project aimed to encourage a wave of sub-$100 smartphones, but the initiative didn’t make it beyond a few models. Last year Mozilla refocussed its Firefox OS away from cheap smartphones after failing to gain any real support.

At $4, Ringing Bells is offering what is surely the cheapest smartphone to date. Yet we can’t help but think it’s a publicity stunt rather than a selfless act of generosity. The devices cost much more to manufacture than their retail price, and India’s low average income means the company is unlikely to recoup costs by selling accessories, services or associated products.

In addition, the phone’s shortcomings may be highlighted by the very market the device is targeting. The Freedom 251 has a 1450 mAh battery — woefully small for a modern smartphone. It’s unlikely to last more than half a day, and in a market where access to electricity is not always a given and feature phones are prized for a battery life measured in weeks, the new smartphone could attract some criticism after the goodwill of its launch price has subsided. Rural users may not appreciate the relative fragility of a smartphone, either.

Nevertheless, the extremely low price of the Freedom 251 will, at least indirectly, lower the barrier for smartphone affordability in the country. Given that the smartphone’s bill of materials is much higher than its selling price, Ringing Bells will not be able to sustain the launch offer for long. If the company’s objective was to build brand awareness and gain some publicity, it’s already succeeded. But India’s unconnected millions need more than a gimmick.