Feature phone

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Nokia 6020; A feature phone

A feature phone is a mobile phone which is priced at the mid-range in a wireless provider's hardware lineup.[dubious ] The term "feature phone" is a retronym. It is intended for customers who want a moderately priced and multipurpose phone without the expense of a high-end smartphone. A feature phone has additional functions over and above a basic mobile phone which is only capable of voice calling and text messaging. Due to the quick progression in capabilities, current mid-range devices in a carrier's lineup today may be more advanced than previous high-end devices just a few years ago.[1][2]

Feature phones may often be marketed by certain carriers under various terms; for instance Rogers Wireless labels them as "smartphone lite".[3] Since mid-2012, the term dumbphone in order to refer to any mobile phone other than smartphone has increased in use and applies today to most of feature phones that do not offer touch screen, wireless internet and/or mobile OS support.


The category of feature phones refers primarily to mid-range phones, between basic phones on the low end (also known as dumb phones, with few or no features beyond basic dialing and messaging) and smart phones on the high end. Prior to the popularity of smart phones, the term "feature phone" may be applied to high-end phones with assorted features. These developed and peaked in popularity during the 2000s, contemporary with 3G networks, which allowed sufficient bandwidth for these features. Since the popularization of smart phones in the late 2000s, feature phones have been replaced at the high end with smart phones, though particular features may be found on either feature phones or smart phones.

In Japan, mobile phones developed a wide array of features prior to the development of smart phones. The introduction of smart phones has largely displaced these at the high end, though smart phones for the Japanese market often include features first developed on feature phones. Many of these features were and remain specific to Japan, often requiring network support, and the resulting phones, while dominant in Japan, proved unsuccessful abroad. This led to the term "Galápagos syndrome" – specialized development dominant on an island, but not found abroad – and then the term is Gala-phone (ガラケイ gara-kei?), blending with "mobile phone" (携帯 keitai?), to refer to Japanese feature phones, by contrast with newer smart phones.

Market share[edit]

During the mid-2000s, best-selling feature phones such as the fashionable flip-phone Motorola Razr, multimedia Sony Ericsson W580i, and the LG Black Label Series not only occupied the mid-range pricing in a wireless provider's lineup, they made up the bulk of retail sales as smartphones from BlackBerry and Palm were still considered a niche category for business use. Even as late as 2009, smartphone penetration in North America was low.[4]

In 2007, Apple introduced the groundbreaking iPhone and by 2009, the iPhone and devices running Google Android shifted the smartphone focus from the enterprise to mass market consumers (at the expense of business-oriented operating systems such as Windows Mobile and BlackBerry).[5] As a result smartphones have enjoyed the largest selection and advertising among carriers, who are devoting less and less store space and marketing to feature phones and dumbphones.[6]

In 2011, feature phones accounted for 60 percent of the mobile telephones in the United States[7] and 70 percent of mobile phones sold worldwide.[8] It is predicted that by 2013 feature phones' share will drop as smartphones become more popular, as half of all mobile phones will be smartphones.[9] For the first time ever, in 2013, smartphones outsold feature phones in the second quarter, according to research firm Gartner.[10] Smartphones accounted for 51.8 percent of mobile phone sales in the second quarter of 2013, resulting in smartphone sales surpassing feature phone sales for the first time.[11]

A survey of 4,001 Canadians by Media Technology Monitor in fall 2012 suggested about 83 per cent of the anglophone population owned a cellphone, up from 80 per cent in 2011 and 74 per cent in 2010. About two thirds of the mobile phone owners polled said they had a smartphone and the other third had feature phones or non-smartphones. According to MTM, non-smartphone users are more likely to be female, older, have a lower income, live in a small community and have less education. The survey found that smartphone owners tend to be male, younger, live in a high-income household with children in the home, and residents of a community of one million or more people. Students also ranked high among smartphone owners.[12]

According to Gartner in Q2 2013, 225 million smartphones were sold which represented a 46.5 percent gain over the same period in 2012, while 201 million feature phones were sold which was a decrease of 21 percent year over year, the first time that smartphones have outsold feature phones.[13]

Industry trends[edit]

Feature phones, despite their additional functions over and above a basic mobile phone or "dumb phone", were[when?] still primarily designed as communication devices. Feature phone makers such as Nokia and Motorola were[when?] enjoying record sales of cell phones based more on fashion and brand rather than technological innovation.[14][15][16]

However, consumer-oriented smartphones such as the iPhone and those running Android fundamentally changed the industry, with Steve Jobs proclaiming in 2007 that "the phone was not just a communication tool but a way of life".[17] Existing feature phone operating systems at the time such as Symbian were not designed to handle additional tasks beyond communication and basic functions, did not emphasis application developers much, and due to infighting among manufacturers as well as the complex bureaucracy and bloatness of the OS, they never developed a thriving ecosystem like Apple's App Store or Android's Google Play.[17] By contrast, iPhone OS (renamed iOS in 2010) and Android were designed as a robust OS, embracing third-party apps, and having capabilities such as multitasking and graphics in order to meet future consumer demands.[18]

There has been an industry shift from feature phones (including low-end smartphones), which rely mainly on volume, to high-end flagship smartphones which also enjoy higher margins, thus high-end smartphones are much more lucrative for manufacturers than feature phones.[19] For instance Apple Inc.'s operating margins from the iPhone remain high since these devices have always been sold to carriers at a high enough cost which compels carriers to sell them as smartphones via retail.[20] It has also been found that attempting to keep manufacturing prices of feature phones low results in significant sacrifices to performance and usability (the latest OS is often too intensive for cheaper past-generation phone CPUs, such as Android 4.0 on the LG Optimus L7).[21][6] The shift away from feature phones has forced wireless carriers to increase subsidies of handsets, and the high selling prices of flagship smartphones have had a negative effect on the wireless carriers (AT&T Mobility, Verizon, and Sprint) who have seen their EBITDA service margins drop as they sold more smartphones and fewer feature phones.[22][23][24] Trends have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for smartphones that deliver more features/applications such as 4G LTE and touchscreens, and smartphones have become a part of North American pop culture (while feature phones are no longer "cool"). Though smartphones cost more to produce they deliver high profit margins than feature phones, thus device makers and wireless carriers have shifted towards smartphones.[1]

That being said, as of Q1 2012, only Apple and Samsung have been successful in the high-end smartphone market while all other manufacturers have broke even or lost money. Nokia's turnaround effort with the Lumia series of Windows Phone devices is centered upon feature phones (inexpensive but fully featured smartphones that support the same OS as the flagship smartphones) that will sell in volumes to reasonably support the company's smartphone business as well as raise brand awareness, whereas high-end flagship smartphones will generate the profits but not be the main focus as Apple's iPhone (which does not compete in the feature phone category).[19] At the moment, most of the focus is on high-end flagship smartphones, however Nokia has been trying to create feature phones with "smartphone functionality".[25] An analyst noted Windows Phone has been successfully able to attract first-time smartphone buyers upgrading from a feature phone (52% of Windows Phone users had previously owned a feature phone), and as of 2013 over half of the US population still used feature phones.[2][3]

Difference between smartphone and feature phone[edit]

Whilst a feature phone is a low-end device and a smartphone a high-end one, there is no standard way of distinguishing them.[26][27] Smartphone and feature phone are not mutually exclusive categories.[28] A complication in distinguishing between smartphones and feature phones is that over time the capabilities of new models of feature phones can increase to exceed those of phones that had been promoted as smartphones in the past. Because technology changes rapidly, what was a smartphone ten years ago may be considered only a feature phone today. For example, today's feature phones typically also serve as a personal digital assistant (PDA) and portable media player and have capabilities such as cameras, touchscreen, GPS navigation, Wi-Fi, and mobile broadband access.

Back in 2009, a significant difference between smartphones and feature phones is that the advanced application programming interfaces (APIs) on smartphones for running third-party applications[29] can allow those applications to have better integration with the phone's OS and hardware than is typical with feature phones.[30] In comparison, feature phones more commonly run on proprietary firmware, with third-party software support through platforms such as Java ME or BREW.[31] It should be noted, though, that many of these proprietary software platforms, such as S60 (Nokia, Samsung and LG), UIQ (Sony Ericsson and Motorola) and MOAP(S) (Japanese only such as Fujitsu, Sharp etc.), which were based on Symbian, were gradually phased out in 2009-11. During that period the manufacturers shifted their lineups, usually the high-end handsets first then followed by the mid-range and low-end offerings, to advanced APIs such as Android and Windows Phone.

As of 2010-present, while advanced APIs appear on smartphones first, they are gradually moving to feature phones; for instance as of 2012 smartphones (especially flagship phones) are often the first to run the latest OS version (i.e. the HTC One X which ships with Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, while the midrange HTC Desire C has Android 2.3 Gingerbread).[32] Often OS is no longer a distinguishing factor, such as the Nokia Lumia 900 smartphone and Lumia 710 feature phone, both of which run Windows Phone 7.5, however the Lumia 900 has among other things a better camera and a larger screen. Another example is the HTC One X and HTC One S, the flagship and upper-middle offerings of HTC's One series lineup, and the HTC One V; all three ship with Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, however the One X and One S have dual-core processors which allows them to run future Android updates whereas the One V is a single-core which will be unlikely to enjoy an OS update. The only advanced smartphone OS that has never appeared on a feature phone so far is Apple iOS, as all of the company's handset releases using iOS (the iPhone) have always commanded smartphone (premium) pricing, and as Apple has not licensed iOS out to other handset manufacturers.

The price difference between a smartphone and feature phone remains one of the widely used attributes to distinguish the two devices. As of March 2012, the big three Canadian cellular service providers (Rogers, Bell, Telus) offer the choice of purchasing smartphone upfront for $450–650 CAD on "no term" (month-by-month), or by signing 3-year voice and data contract to waive most of the handset purchase cost (there are no waivers for a voice-only plan). The no term price for a feature phone, by contrast, is typically half or even less than that of a smartphone (topping out at $300 CAD), and this cost can be waived with a 3-year voice-only plan.[33][34][35] Below feature phones are basic mobile phones or "dumbphones" which are intended for pay-as-you-go customers and often retail for $0.[2] Smartphones, while improving their features and capabilities, however, have always maintained their price advantage over feature phones.[36] Pricing structure is still a grey area, for instance at Rogers Wireless, the Sony Xperia ion was originally released with smartphone pricing in June 2012, however poor sales led to that device being demoted to feature phone pricing by December 2012 of that year. By contrast, the iPhone 4 8 GB which debuted in mid-2010 was sold as a smartphone by Rogers as of December 2012 (which reflects Apple's success in keeping the price of its phones constant).


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