Rise of the Feature Phones: the “Dumb Phone” gets its due

The rollout of new java applications like Facebook for Every Phone has brought the spotlight back on “feature phones” – which in one way are the internet phones that everyone had (or still have) prior to to the coming of age of iPhones and Androids.

Of course defining what a “feature phone” is in 2011 is always a problem. My own quick and dirty definition is – a feature phone is a phone that can connect to the mobile internet (and has some relatively advanced amenities like a camera (or a front facing camera) and the ability of apps. The camera is the dead giveaway – it almost always implies that the screen is color  (after all, who wants to look at monochrome photos?).

The ability to take photos implies the phone can transmit the photos via MMS – which in turn implies that the phone has a mobile internet connection – either via GPRS (2G), EDGE (2.5G) or UMTS (3G). And the phone has a built web browser and can run apps. Usually J2ME or Java apps – after all, that color screen implies gaming, and a way to get new games into the phone – hence Java games.

What a “feature phone” is is not a “smartphone” – which sport more powerful processors (and are often more powerful than the desktop computers of decades past), have multitasking operating systems, and can subsequently run more powerful apps – the iPhone is the most common archetype – and in its wake you can now lump Androids, Blackberries, and minor players like Windows Phone and WebOS in the smartphone camp.

Since they’re not “smart”, feature phones are sometimes called “dumb phones” – but don’t tell that to their faces.

Some previously Smart Phones have become “dumber” over time, because the competition has totally leaped frogged over them.

A case in point was my first “smartphone” – a Nokia E71 running the Symbian Series 60 3rd edition operating system. Back in its day, it was considered a smartphone, but as the years went by, Series 60 phones have become “dumb” in comparison to modern smartphones and are often considered Feature Phones. With Nokia junking Symbian in favor of Windows Phone 7 as its primary smartphone OS, the final nail in the coffin was pounded in.

Now you can kick as much sand as you want at the faces of feature phones, but the reality is that there are just so much more of them around than smartphones.

In countries like the Philippines, mobile penetration is relatively high (93% according to some studies) but smartphone penetration is still down to the single digits. This leaves the vast majority of the population using feature phones or worse, non-internet capable phones who are limited to SMS.

Feature phone population can also be said to be growing, rather than shrinking. Instead of being limited to older model phones being replaced by newer “smarter” models, the market is being inundated with low-cost China-made phones using the “MTK” chipsets from Taiwanese companies like Mediatek.

These phones, carrying local brand names like MyPhone, Cherry Mobile, and Torque have effectively challenged Nokia in the low-end. While the bulk of their MTK models are basic SMS-only models, their “high end” can connect to the internet and can run java apps – hence fit the classic definition of feature phones.

So it’s a no-brainer, the fastest way to mobile internet growth in the Philippines? Feature phones. There are just so many of them out there, they can’t be ignored.

The challenge is getting users of these phones to turn on their internet capabilities and start using feature phone apps. The new Facebook Mobile apps for java phones is one path – and then of course there is the very capable Operamini browser, which has its roots firmly set in the java featurephone camp.

In the next series of blog posts, I’ll be leaving my smartphone fanboy hat at the door and will be exploring the world of the entry level mobile internet – feature phones, the apps that run on them, and low-budget ways for hooking up to the mobile internet.

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