Functionality over Glitz: Feature Phones Show Strength

Carl Weinschenk
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The mobile device world is very crowded. Laptops, tablets and phones compete to find the lucrative but evasive sweet spots. The winners get rich and the losers go home.

There are many shades of gray within each category. For instance, there are business tablets, such as Cisco's Cius, and those for entertainment, led by the iPad. That's not all the complexity. Each category has its internal distinctions. In the phone category, for instance, there are old-fashion cell phones and smartphones. The less glitzy devices - the feature phones - are primarily used for the quaint task of making phone calls. People who buy these phones "don't know from" (as we say in New York) social networks, mobile video or e-wallets. They also don't want to spend a lot of money on their mobile device.

This week, Nokia made a move into this sector with the purchase of Smarterphone, which CNET describes as "a small Norwegian company" that has an operating system that lets lower-end devices mime higher-end smartphones. The story puts the purchase in the context of Nokia's two other ongoing initiatives: its Symbian OS, which is aimed at emerging markets and low-end phones, and its deal to use Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system.

It's worth noting that Nokia's purchase of Smarterphone happened amidst rumors that Microsoft is negotiating to buy the Finnish company's smartphone division. If that's so, it means that Nokia, one of the most important companies in the development of the current cell phone landscape, is making a strategic decision that it is better off in less competitive and glitzy sectors of the cell phone universe.

If so, Nokia's interest in the feature phone market isn't unique. Indeed, there seems to be a good deal of activity on the feature phone/low end of the smartphone frontier, which isn't surprising considering that CES is next week. Coolest Gadgets and other sites report that Sprint and Samsung are introducing the M370. The story, which runs through the features of the device, introduces it in a way that manages expectations in a manner that doesn't denigrate the device:

Specially designed for practical customers who want to use the phone just to make and receive phone calls, snap photos once in a while, and send and receive text messages, the clamshell Samsung M370 does seem to be the perfect purchase.

Another modest phone - but one that seems to be fairly clearly on the periphery of the smartphone world - is the Nokia Lumia 710, which Wired reports will launch Jan. 11. It is a Windows Phone device running the Mango update. Again, the focus - and the $50 price tag - is not on experienced smartphone users:

T-Mobile feels it'd be a great smartphone for those making the first-time switch from a feature phone, and with the low price and entry-level specs, we're inclined to agree.

The media focuses on the cutting edge. The bottom line, however, is that it's a big world. There are many people in developed nations who don't want to pony up for a cutting-edge device and huge swatches of the globe where lower-end phones are the first choice. Nokia and others are attempting to more forcefully tap into that demand.

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