In a fireside chat with Xavier Perret, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships with Orange (France Telecom), I learned about some progressive initiatives that Orange is leading to give the power of mobile to the people.

One unique initiative is to allow people in Africa to access basic features of Facebook without a smartphone. Using USSD, a GSM protocol that allows data access at a low bandwidth, Orange has been able to let Facebook users in Africa, check-in,’ like’, comment and view their social activity from any phone. This is very useful, given 31 out of 32 phones are not smartphones in Africa. The rate of adoption was so fast that 350,000 users connected to Facebook through Orange feature phones in a month, a number they were targeting after one year. Currently it has only been rolled out in Egypt and just last week in Ivory Coast.

In an effort to make mobile more open and accessible, Orange has a careful approach to managing the Orange app store. By no means bigger than the Apple App Store or the Android Marketplace, Orange helps customers by making it more relevant. They do this by firstly, selecting and promoting apps that they feel will be useful for their users and secondly, localizing the app store to their local language. In Egypt, Orange translated the Nokia Symbian Ovi App Store into Arabic and only featured twenty apps which enhanced engagement with the app store.

Since Orange is investing heavily in developing countries and markets, one of their goals is to grow the penetration of smartphones in Africa from 16% currently to 25% by 2016. Recognizing the GDP and purchasing power profile of countries like Egypt, Senegal and Jordan are very different from the West, Orange is aiming to supplier more lower end but affordable phones to these markets. A source of these phones will certainly be from low cost manufacturers in China.

Another way to democratize mobile, is by making it accessible to people of different ages. Perret said it his mission to make “smartphones easy for my mother and father to use.” Of course people in different age groups use different kinds of apps. For example, younger people like playing games and older people like more reading apps and business applications. In order to make apps more accessible, Orange is thinking carefully about how to deliver the right apps to the right people.

Following yesterdays keynote speech by Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, Perret said that Orange was an early and leading advocate of the push to wider HTML5 adoption in the developer community. This means that apps are not locked into silos or constrained by the operating system such as iOS. The goal of this is to make the ecosystem more open. This will also allow developers to more easily generate revenue if they hook into Facebook and utilize the Facebook Credits payment system which is paid through carrier billing. To drive greater openness, Orange has even encouraged the World Wide Web Consortium (3WC), an international standards organization for internet, to push more consistent adoption of HTML5.

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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