Features Phones and Smartphones Increasingly Overlap

Carl Weinschenk
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Lots of the ink (or electrons) spent discussing smartphones quite naturally look at the more expensive, feature-rich and glitziest of the devices being offered. The reality is, however, that there is a lot of excitement and news - and a lot of money - at the lower end of the category. Several moves at the Mobile World Congress this week in Barcelona prove the point.

In reality, it is difficult to say where feature phones end and smartphones begin. But it is clear that extended functionality - whatever the name - is extending downward. There is good reason: Vendors are motivated to create these devices simply because there is a big potential market for folks who want features that seemed exotic a few years ago. For instance, touchscreens and social networking - traditionally seen in smartphones but not feature phones - are seen as normal features by a higher percentage of people as time goes on.

It also is a function of the market. Android - especially through Samsung - and Apple make it difficult for the other players to get much traction at the top of the heap. These vendors see more opportunity at the lower end, especially in developing countries.

One of the key moves at the lower end of the market was last year's deal to use Windows Phone in Nokia handsets. The companies said at MWC that they were pushing the alliance faster. The New York Times reports that the duo said the price of the Lumia 610 will be $250, which is about 30 percent less than the Lumia 710, the previous model. It also is pursuing an aggressive worldwide strategy. Nokia will start opening online stores in local languages for Lumia devices, applications and services in 28 countries by the end of next month, the NYT said.

The expansion of smartphones has been a topic of note recently. Earlier this month, I discussed the trend with Ramon Llamas, a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Phone Technology and Trends team. Llamas said:

Feature phones are indeed shrinking. It's kind of by design. Mobile phone companies with long histories in feature phones are more and more into smartphones. Motorola is a good example. Sony Ericsson is another. The market is going to become more or even all smartphone-oriented. Companies like Nokia, whose majority of businesses are in feature phones, are starting to see an inflection point. Smartphone sales [grow] year after year, and we are starting to see a slowdown in feature phone shipment growth.

The fuzziness of the line between feature phones and smartphones is just about gone. Nokia also used MWC to introduce smartphone-like features to the Asha 202, Asha 203 and Asha 302.

Not all the announcements involved Nokia. Myriad announced a social networking for feature phones - with touchscreens potentially not far behind. PCmag reports that the wraps were taken off Opera Mini Next:

Most notably, the browser includes new advanced social media tools that make feature phones a little bit more like smartphones. A new home screen, called "Smart Page" will display a collection of regularly-visited Web sites, providing feature phones one-click access to social networks and news Web Sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The bottom line is that technology, market conditions and the competitive position of vendors are shifting. Whether the best way to describe the new landscape is that feature phones no longer exist or they simply are gaining great functionality is immaterial. The important takeaway is that a very powerful but relatively inexpensive strata of devices is taking root.

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