How smuggling is behind the latest spec in smartphones

Why a return to the primitive microSD card-slot in smartphone design might beat out cloud offerings.

smuggling lead image
Credit: Patrick Nelson

Take a look at specification sheets on Samsung’s new budget smartphones, like the 3G-radio-omitted Galaxy Star II, and you’ll see a killer feature.

It’s potentially a hugely-popular item, but it’s something not seen on many currently available U.S.-oriented mid-range phones. Many expensive phones from multiple vendors don’t have it either, and even the forward-thinking, global-geared, budget and mid-range devices from Motorola don’t have it.

So, what is this surprising super feature that Samsung is going to be leading the low-end pack with, you ask? Ultrasonic pen? Retina scanner?

Well, I can tell you that it isn't anything as glamorous, because it’s the lowly microSD card slot.

And a global phenomena called "knowledge smuggling" is the reason for its wow factor.

What’s going on?

Numerous countries restrict the media that their citizens can consume, including materials obtained through the Internet. And mobile internet is easily crippled by regimes, with a few switch-throws or hacked geo-fences.

Mobile devices, though, are beginning to become the primary digital portals for consumers in developing countries — PC’s have been skipped many places

Add the ease at which gigabytes of webpages, books and movies can be encased in a miniscule sliver of five-dollar plastic — the expandable-memory microSD card — and then swallowed, or hidden by bootleggers crossing borders, and it makes card-slot incorporation in mobile devices a no-brainer.

That’s if you want to keep your regime-oppressed punters happy.

And particularly its if you’re worried about slowing sales: Samsung issued an earnings warning on slower smartphone sales this month. Conveniently, though, book-burner regions echo smartphone growth areas — the First World is saturated with smartphones.

SD cards in cheap phones are back

Now, I’m not going to suggest that Samsung is consciously doing something as inflammatory as aiding in the smuggling of Western thought into North Korea. We don’t want any world wars this week, please.

In fact, AP writer Tim Sullivan interviewed a smuggler in North Korea a couple of years ago for an article about knowledge smuggling crackdowns. The runner said that any smuggler there avoided all South Korean products, like the then-technology DVDs and thumb drives.

But, hmm.

The book burner regions

There are other places, notably in the Middle East, where western media is banned too, although much of it is only bureaucratically prohibited.

Airport screening is often cursory there, and you can get a lot of DVDs, including pornography in neighborhood souks, along with your live chickens, according to bloggers on the subject.

Regimes can change though; ask any Arab Spring participant.

More places and how Google plays

Africa illicitly uses microSD cards, too. Google co-founder Eric Schmidt cited the region in a 2013 blog post titled A Week of Africa as an example of a card-carrying knowledge smuggling region.

Interestingly, that blog inclusion and Schmidt’s awareness of the practice make it surprising that the until-recently Google-owned Motorola brand doesn't use expandable memory at all in its latest cheap, world-pitched phones, like the Moto G. (Ed. Note: an earlier version of this past said the Moto E did not have a microSD slot; in fact, the Moto E does have one, but the base Moto G and mid-range Moto X do not.)

Google’s next budget global phone, the sub-$100 Android One, has expandable memory options in its design specification, though, according to blog The Digital Reader.

Where it’s headed?

LG’s current flagship, the G3—at a price point out-of-reach of most in the developing world—can handle cards up to 2TB. That’s over a thousand gigabytes.

So, you get where this technology is heading, right? Without getting into a debate about how big video files are, you can reckon on a few hundred episodes of The Bachelorette, at least.

So, western media lovers abroad might do well to look for a cheapo Samsung with microSD card functionality — not the fixed-memory Motorolas with cloud — the next time they're perusing shiny new devices down at the bazaar.

And equally, Motorola and others, without expandable memory slots, better get on the case if they want that mercado shopper to buy their phones.

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