Reading app launched for 'dumb' phones

US non-profit literacy agency Worldreader has beta-launched an app for non-smartphones in order to distribute free e-books into sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world.

The Worldreader app, developed by Sydney-based start-up biNu, uses cloud-based data compression technology to enable any Java-enabled "feature" phone (non-smartphone) to download e-books and access news websites and Facebook over an ordinary mobile signal.

Worldreader director of digital publishing Elizabeth Wood, speaking to the The Bookseller at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, said: "These 'feature' phones—or dumb phones—may not look cool, but they are the phones that are used by billions of people in the developing world. We've created the app to give access to books to those who don't have it."

Worldreader, co-founded in 2008 by former Amazon senior executive David Risher, is often called "the e-reader NGO". Its aim is to work with its partners to "bring millions of books to underserved children and families in the developing world". The charity has previously focused on bringing e-reading devices to classrooms in Africa. By the end of March, it will have distributed 75,000 e-readers in four projects across Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.    

The charity currently has "hundreds" of titles for the new app, including an agreement with Puffin and the Roald Dahl estate for some of Dahl's e-books.

Wood said that Worldreader was actively talking to publishers to increase the content. She added: "The end-game is to have thousands of e-books on the app. Yes, this is a leap of  faith for publishers, giving away some of their content for free. But once you give these kids in the developing world the tools and hook these kids on books, they will become book buyers."