biNu Socializes Its Feature Phone App Platform

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biNu, a startup backed by Eric Schmidt’s TomorrowVentures, allows owners of feature phones and lower-end smartphones to access apps like Facebook and Twitter. Now the company is getting more ambitious on the social networking side.

CEO Gour Lentell tells me that it wasn’t really his plan to build a social network. Instead, biNu focused initially on making content accessible — whether it’s Wikipedia, the Bible, or a news site like TechCrunch. But users wanted to share and interact around the content, so biNu has been slowly adding social features over time, until the team realized that it was becoming “fully social,” Lentell says. A few weeks ago, the company launched its own social app on biNu home screen, and next week, it’s adding the last big piece, a news stream where you can follow updates from other users.

Lentell came by the TechCrunch office earlier this week to show me the app and its social features. Users can friend others, they can share photos, and they can send instant messages and SMS. It’s optimized for a small screen and a slow wireless connection, but other than that it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a mobile social network — Lentell says that even though biNu is focused on emerging markets (such as East Africa), its users have “the same social needs and desires no matter who they are.”

There are other social services aimed at feature phones, such as mig33, but the real competitor may be Facebook, which is looking to grow on lower-end phones in emerging markets, thanks its acquisition of Snaptu. However, Lentell says that with the billions of feature phones in the world, “there’s a lot of ocean out there,” so he doesn’t think he’ll be fighting with Facebook for users anytime soon. In fact, as I noted above, biNu also offers Facebook and Twitter apps as part of its platform.

Lentell also notes that since biNu is based in the cloud, the service could eventually be made available other devices too. For example, someone might create a social account on biNu’s mobile app, but they could also log in and access their social connections (and other biNu services) when they’re on a desktop computer at an Internet cafe.

biNu says it currently has 4.2 million unique monthly users.

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