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A feature phone is a class of mobile phone; the term is typically used as a retronym to describe low-end mobile phones which are limited in capabilities in contrast to a modern smartphone, such as the iPhone. Feature phones typically provide voice calling and text messaging functionality, in addition to basic multimedia and internet capabilities, and other services offered by the user's wireless service provider.
In an effort to provide parity with smartphones, modern feature phones have also incorporated support for 3G connectivity, touchscreens, and access to popular social networking services. However, their functionality and support for third-party software are still relatively limited in comparison to smartphones – as a result of this contrast, some feature phones are also referred to as dumb phones.
Feature phones are marketed as a lower-cost alternative to smartphones, especially in emerging markets. However, even in these markets, manufacturers have, in recent years, begun to produce and sell low-cost smartphones in an effort to tap into markets where adoption of high-end smartphones has been low. Hence, as of 2015[update], feature phones have been almost completely relegated to the ultra-low-end category.
The category of feature phones is distinct from smartphones, and refers primarily to low-range phones, ranging from basic phones on the low end (few or no features beyond basic dialing and messaging) to smartphones on the high end. Prior to the popularity of smartphones, the term may be applicable 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 smartphones in the late 2000s, feature phones have been replaced in most of the world at the high end with smartphones, though particular features may be found on either feature phones or smartphones.
In Japan, mobile phones developed a wide array of features prior to the development of smartphones. The introduction of smartphones has largely displaced these at the high end, though smartphones 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 lead to the term "Gala-phone" (ガラケー garakei?), blending Galapagos with "mobile phone" (携帯 keitai denwa?), to refer to Japanese feature phones, by contrast with smartphones. In 2014, Japan shipped 10.58 million units of garakei, a 5% increase over 2013; durability and long battery life account for part of their rise in popularity.
During the mid-2000s, best-selling feature phones such as the fashionable Motorola Razr flip-phone, the 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.
In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone and by 2009, the iPhone and 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. As a result, smartphones enjoyed the largest selection and advertising among carriers, which devoted less and less store space and marketing to feature phones.
In 2011, feature phones accounted for 60% of mobile telephones used in the United States and 70% of mobile phones sold worldwide. In 2013, smartphones outsold feature phones for the first time, accounting for 51.8% of mobile phone sales in the second quarter of that year.
A survey of 4,001 Canadians by Media Technology Monitor (MTM) in fall 2012 reported that 83% of the anglophone population owned a cell phone, up from 80% in 2011, and 74% 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 were 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 tended 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.
Feature phones, despite their additional functions over and above a basic mobile phone or "dumb phone", were[when?] still primarily designed as communication devices. Companies that produced feature phones, such as Nokia and Motorola, were[when?] enjoying record sales of cell phones based more on fashion and brand, rather than technological innovation. 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".
The Symbian operating system well succeeded S30 and S40 as a true multitasking smartphone operating system, reaching 73% of world smartphone market share in 2006. Symbian historically evolved from the UK-originated EPOC, which was first designed for low-power devices.
Despite its sizable market share, Symbian was at various stages difficult to develop for: first (at around early-to-mid-2000s) due to the complexity of then the only native programming language Symbian C++ and of the OS itself; then the obstinate developer bureaucracy, along with high prices of various IDEs and SDKs, which were prohibitive for independent or very small developers; and then the subsequent fragmentation, which was in part caused by infighting among and within manufacturers, each of which also had their own IDEs and SDKs. All of this discouraged third-party developers, and served to cause the native app ecosystem for Symbian not to evolve to a scale later reached by Apple's App Store or Android's Google Play.
By contrast, iPhone OS (renamed iOS in 2010) and Android had comparatively simpler design, provided easier and much more centralized infrastructure to create and obtain third-party apps, offered certain developer tools and programming languages with a manageable level of complexity, and had capabilities such as multitasking and graphics (compared to S30, S40, and Blackberry) in order to meet future consumer demands.
That Symbian was difficult to program for could be worked around by creating Java Mobile Edition apps, ostensibly under a "write once, run anywhere" slogan. This was not always the case because of fragmentation due to different device screen sizes and differences in levels of Java ME support on various devices.
The issues around Symbian development itself were gradually alleviated after the open-source Qt framework was introduced to Symbian in 2010, as the primary upgrade path to MeeGo, which was to be the next mobile operating system to replace and supplant Symbian on high-end devices; Qt was by its nature free and very convenient to develop with. Several other frameworks were deployed to the platform, among them Standard C/C++, Python, Ruby, and Flash Lite. IDEs and SDKs were developed and then released for free, and app development for Symbian picked up from then on. Yet in September 2010, Stephen Elop became the CEO of Nokia, and in early 2011, he changed the company's course to Windows Phone. After that, third-party app development substantially decreased.
To Symbian's credit, the OS was feature-complete to the extent that smartphone operating systems, such as Windows Phone 7, were found to be severely lacking; many of Symbian's built-in functions could only be obtained in most other mobile operating systems by downloading and installing one or more apps. Well after the introduction of iOS and Android, Symbian began strangely to be considered as a feature phone operating system, despite its extensive functionality rarely found anywhere else.
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 wireless carriers in United States (AT&T Mobility, Verizon, and Sprint), which have seen their EBITDA service margins drop as they sold more smartphones and fewer feature phones. 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 higher profit margins than feature phones, thus device makers and wireless carriers have shifted towards smartphones.
In June 2013, Kantar Worldpanel found that Microsoft's Windows Phone platform had become popular with those migrating from feature phones; while it was, at the time, the third most popular smartphone platform overall behind iOS and Android, 52% of Windows Phone buyers had previously used a feature phone.
Difference between smartphones and feature phones
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Although a feature phone is a low-end device and a smartphone a high-end one, there is no standard way of distinguishing them. Smartphone and feature phone are not mutually exclusive categories. 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 internet access, and even mobile gaming.
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 can allow those applications to have better integration with the phone's OS and hardware than is typical with feature phones. In comparison, feature phones more commonly run on proprietary firmware, with third-party software support through platforms such as Java ME or BREW. 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.
The price difference between a smartphone and feature phone remains one of the widely used attributes to distinguish the two devices. Modern smartphones typically cost around US$600 to 700 on "no term" pricing, but carriers will typically subsidize the price of the phone if the customer enters into a long-term, two-year contract with a voice and mobile data plan. In comparison, the Moto E smartphone, a low-end device designed to be priced competitively to feature phones, only costs around US$120 off-contract direct from the manufacturer.
Feature phones are often kept in phone manufacturers' lineups for several reasons:
- They are lower priced than smartphone, because:
- Most patents on basic mobile phone technology have expired. Some expired patents make it possible to add more functions in their basic form that before were usually the purview of mid-range or high-end phones;
- Many standards-essential patents are required to have fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory licensing (RAND/FRAND), which typically means that license payments for each device using a standards-essential technology must be low enough that it will not disincentivize adoption of a standard or cause legal conflict;
- Mobile phone manufacturers in Asia can also produce phones without worrying about patents.
- Less complexity translates to simpler and cheaper assembly;
- Relative modularity: a feature phone can be designed around one or two primary functions: flashlight, radio, MicroSD card slot for additional storage, music player, camera, Internet browser, and wireless hotspot for more advanced devices. Many basic phones now include some of that functionality, rendering them as basic feature phones, whereas advanced feature phones include all of these and more.
- Low cost allows very flexible price ranges from low-end to mid-range. This allows serving low-end markets with basic and feature phones, as people in these market segments cannot afford smartphones;
- To replace a phone that has reached an end of life in market segments that require or prefer such a device.
- The feature phone lineup serves as a backup for critical situations – production delays, import/sales ban levied by competitors through courts or other like institutions.
From the point of view of markets and consumers, there are several situations for which basic and feature phones are beneficial:
- Liberal and mature markets are well-suited for specific functions: In countries where payphones have been discontinued, some operators offer prepaid phone plans with a SIM card and a basic mobile phone in one package for about the same amount a mid-tier calling card would have cost (€15 for the whole package in some areas). Travelers may often prefer this option, given expensive roaming fees, and that their own device's cellphone functionality might be limited or not work at all, if they have arrived from overseas territories with a device that was only made to work in an incompatible cell network, or if their calling plan does not include roaming.
- Power requirements are typically low, which translates to extended talk and standby times (approximately a month to next recharge). In some cases this makes it possible not to use grid power at all, by recharging through more autonomous means, such as cars and car batteries, solar photo-voltaic cells, or even notebook computers, if a phone supports USB charging.
- Less complexity: be it to offer simple functionality for people who are averse to more complex technologies.
Some market segments have specific requirements:
- Companies and organizations may often want to provide their employees with a simple communications device, and purchase in bulk. This substantially reduces the individual price each phone.
- For various levels of security, companies may require a phone that is lacking a camera, and/or has little to no storage, or no communications functionality beyond basic talking;
- Anticipated loss, damage, or reasonably rough use: Basic and feature phones are often more durable, less complex, and more affordable than smartphones, and for these reasons are preferred as "travel phones", "party phones", "child's phones", and for field use scenarios. The devices' low cost means that loss of such an item is manageable, and usually serves as a disincentive for theft in mature markets. Basic and feature phones are preferred for travel purposes, as by their nature they can contain little to no sensitive information that border officials in some countries are very keen on getting their hands on for any reason.
- Ruggedized phones for industrial and field use and more extreme conditions can be expensive, but are also offered with basic or feature phone functionality to invite a price-conscious market segment that requires these.
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