Android's Achilles' Heel - The Sim Toolkit

Quite a few people, myself included, believe that Android is going to become absolutely huge in Africa.  Here in Rwanda, smartphones are becoming more and more prevalent for the upper tier consumers.  Though the Blackberry is the only smart phone sold by local carriers, it is not uncommon to see unlocked iPhones as well, no less a status symbol here as the rest of the world.

Of course the beauty of Android is that at any moment one of the carriers here could start selling them, unlike the iPhone, Android is open for anybody to sell on any network.  As a matter of fact, I have it on good authority that the biggest carrier here, MTN, will start carrying some Android handsets soon.  And as the price continues to drop, I'm sure they will become just as popular here as they have become in the West.

That is if it wasn't for one giant gotcha: Android's terrible support for the Sim Toolkit.

Now if you live in the States, you might not even know what the STK is, so a bit of explaining is in order.  Put simply, the STK allows carriers to load a simple set of menus and 'applications' on your SIM card.  Again, on your fancy iPhone, you may question the need or purpose for such a thing, but that's because you are still years behind and using a credit card.  Here, where credit cards are virtually unknown, the present and future of payments is Mobile Money, which is almost always delivered via.. you guessed it, the STK.

See, the STK works on virtually any device, from a $5 Alcatel to a $200 Nokia, these phones all implement the GSM standard and therefore allow anybody, both rich and poor to access services like Mobile Money.

Except if you have an Android handset.

Earlier versions of Android, up to 1.6, actually included a rather rough, but functional Sim Toolkit application, but at some point it was dropped, and even Google's own latest and greatest ROM's for its Nexus One and Nexus S handsets lack it.  As a matter of fact, I don't know of any devices running Android 2.3 that include it.

Thankfully, CyanogenMod has been forward porting the Sim Toolkit for a while now, and sure enough, Cyanogen 7.0 still has it.  But it is a buggy and unpleasant experience.  I tried to activate MTN Mobile Money today using my Nexus One, and half way through the process just gave up and used my $5 backup phone instead.  I can access most menus using Cyanogen, but only by force quitting the Sim Toolkit after every request.

I'm not the only one commenting on this, the web is full of people screaming that their fancy new $500 smartphone is too snobby, too highfaluting, to play with the rest of the world.

So here's a clue Google:

If you want Android to be relevant anywhere apart from the West, then start thinking about how we live day to day.  Build a browser that does wire compression before sending it down (oh hai Opera!), give us finer control over when background data is used, give us USSD API support, and for god sake's, implement a 20 year old standard so we can use the services that make our lives more convenient than yours.