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July 13th 2012 1:15 pm

Do featurephones have a future?

According to a new study by Nielsen, two thirds of all new cellphone buyers are picking up smartphones instead of basic or feature models. Given that carriers are heavily subsidizing smartphones, with some now in the free tier, that may not be a big surprise. And smartphone market share is likely to keep going up. Back in February, according to Nielsen, smartphone and feature phone ownership levels crossed paths at 50%, with feature phones headed down, and smarties moving up.


What does this mean for the future of the cellphone market? If you're in the market for a smartphone, you'll probably continue to get more options at competitive prices, as carriers and manufacturers continue trying to one-up each other. (One recent example: Discounters are already selling the Samsung Galaxy S III for $149, down from its $199 launch price just a few weeks ago.) Of course, smartphones are more profitable for carriers, since they can bundle data plans, which aren't always necessary on featurephones. But if you're willing to pay for data, you can expect smartphone prices to continue to be very competitive.

What if you just want a featurephone? They're not about to disappear entirely just yet. They remain popular with parents who want to get basic phones for their younger kids, older customers who don't want to deal with complicated features, and budget-conscious buyers who have limited on-the-go data needs. But featurephone buyers should expect aggressive upgrade pitches from their carriers, and will find fewer choices as manufacturers continue to shift production to smartphones.

I'm hooked on smartphones, so I'm never going to go back. But if you're still sticking to a featurephone, what do you like about it? And what would it take to make you switch?


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14 replies

I actually have quite a few friends left with feature phones. Reasons I have heard they stick to them include
  1. Battery Life
  2. Have a tablet or iPod touch for "smart" features without a data plan
  3. Durable and Disposable (not the end of the world if you drop it)
  4. Low cost
  5. Works for communication, which is the #1 reason to have a phone
  6. Easy to figure out (mostly for the grandparents crowd)

I actually find it interesting how the flip phone sort of revolutionized the featurephone industry. This didn't translate over to smartphones (besides the misguided BlackBerry Style). Perhaps it is a formfactor of the past.
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Flip phones are cool (mechanically). Sadly you won't see them on phones with the newest, cutting edge features. It's a manufacturing issue.

Devices with fewer moving parts are easier to make with fewer defects. Any manufacturer looking to add features and not add too much cost will no doubt be strictly enforcing manufacturing practices to save operating cost and decrease defects. Complications like manually extending antennae, folding plastic, removable batteries and even memory card doors are all against strict manufacturing practices for design rules. All of these used to be in cell phones, but as the market matures most have gone away.

Think about how many times people pulled the antenna too hard and can never get full bars again. I know some people who resorted to using rubber bands to keep their phone together since the battery would either fall out or the phone was simply dropped too much.

Until we reach a point where all phones are essentially the same, candy bar-single piece-non-removable battery-internal storage smartphones are going to be the staple. When all phones have the same features under the hood, they will start to look different again. As a way to distinguish themselves, like folding keyboards and such. My advice, don't wait, it will be a while.
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I don't need the fancy smart phones. I can access my email and other internet sites using my Kindle with free 3G access.
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In my experience, the #1 reason people choose a feature phone these days is because they want to avoid the "smartphone tax", AKA the $30/month data plan required with most smartphones. If major U.S. carriers didn't have this terrible policy, U.S. smartphone penetration would be closer to 75%, I'd guess.
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I remain puzzled that Android-based feature phones aren't more common. I'm thinking of phones like the Motorola i886 and ZTE Chorus. It's a great way for a manufacturer to deliver a great experience without the investment in a proprietary OS. They can leverage in-house and partner Android expertise to create the whatever advanced software functionality they want. And by getting rid of Google Play and Android branding, they don't have to obey any minimum requirements like including Wi-Fi. They can deliver cheap, feature-phone hardware with a superior software experience. Why isn't this more common?
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Simple cost. It would be like using a shotgun as a gardening tool. Android is the only mobile OS with true multitasking. You don't need that on a feature phone. You don't need an arm processor either. You don't need to take the time to remove the 90 percent of android you'd never use either. Not when you can have a full onchip solution made for 5 cents a pop.
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I'm not convinced it works that way, tough. Any cheap single-chip solution has an ARM processor, albiet a slow one. Stripping down Android should be a lot easier than building and maintaining your own proprietary OS, and you can use in-house talent from the company's smartphone teams. Take out the Wi-Fi, the touch screen, and downgrade the display and processor... you have a great feature phone for the same cost (if not less) than a traditional feature phone.

I wonder why these aren't more common, but I suspect the culprits are either: A. Google discouraging it. or B. Manufacturers afraid that the press will brand such phones as "crippled Android". (But I think a simple OS branding would solve this. As in Motorola calling their stripped-down Android OS "Bean OS" or something. Give it a name and suddenly it's not "crippled Android" anymore.)
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Basic cellphones have a similar future compared to that of the landline. Some people simply don't want more out of their phone. They are happy calling people, using the answering machine and watching TV. Simple video calling like Facetime could really help sell more devices to these people, but being restricted to the iOS platform hurts. Maybe Skype will help.

Obviously I'm calling out the older audience, some of which have computers, some do not have them or only use computers for basic needs like solitaire, typing, excel and email.

This population is slowly disappearing, but it's gonna be a while. Like at least 30 years.

I think as cellphones get cheaper hopefully companies will integrate them into watches and then kids will be running around with watch phones so parents will know where they are and call them when it's time to come home or whatever. A watch phone that let's you type in a number, saves about 10 numbers and allows you to answer a call is what I see in our grammar school children's future. Sadly the main reason being that parents will then have a way to know exactly where their kid is at all times. This is where the feature phone will go. A watch on an 8 year old. So mommy knows when soccer practice is over.

Smartphones in schools are a bad idea and I think if I was a high school teacher I would try to rig my own cellular signal blocking device for my classroom. I'm about 10 years removed from high school and I remember playing calculator games being distracting enough. Texting was def already a thing back then (2000-2004), but not near as crazy as today.

I believe we all hope there will be more community wifi to help curb the cost of having data plans on every device you own, an internet bill to go along with it, and the constant bundling and discounting games that the cable and wireless giants (seem to) love to play.
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It depends what you mean by feature phone. If you mean any non smartphone, I'd say they'll survive. But only in the most basic model. Phones with extra features will disappear as smartphone price goes down and battery life goes up. There will be two options Phones for making calls, sending texts with, maybe, a camera and little more for free, and Smartphones, some of them for free or little money.
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As long as I don't ever have to teach my grandma how to use a smartphone...
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There are plenty of reasons for people to still have feature phones.
  1. Some of them have epic battery lives
  2. Most of them can survive drops without a case and not die
  3. Cheap and easy to repair if it breaks
  4. Some have great call quality and all can text, which are the two biggest reasons to have a phone in the first place
  5. Easy to use and not a lot of ways to ruin one
I can understand why people love smartphones, I have one as well, and most people can deal with a short battery life since they usually have access to an outlet, but as more people in the developing world can afford cellphones it is the cheapest way to communicate. No e-mail, communication companies don't run phone lines that far, and electricity can be hard to come by, so all of the above reasons are far more important than apps, e-mail connectivity, gaming, etc.
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I don't need the internet strapped to me to tell me where I'm going or that one of my friends just downloaded something from iTunes. My old Nokia XpressMusic is rugged, reliable and has a camera and decent music player. Besides I can carry it everywhere and not worry about dropping it and breaking a percious screen. I mostly talk and text, that's all I need from a phone.
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For burner phone/ prepaid, yes. But other than that... no
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