The unexpected comeback of feature phones


In India, the second-largest mobile phone market in the world, it's not smartphones, but their quaint predecessors that still reign supreme. Feature phones – mobile phones that incorporate features such as the ability to access the internet but lack the advanced functionality of smartphones – surprisingly account for the larger share of the billion plus mobile phones currently in use. Feature phones accounted for 55.2 percent of the total mobile phones shipped in India in the third quarter of 2016, recording a four percent year on year increase.

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With public demand showing no signs of waning, phone manufacturers continue to release a slew of low-end phones endowed with features necessary to keep them relevant in the rapidly evolving mobile industry. The likes of Reliance Jio Infocomm and Micromax plan to release feature phones that support 4G VoLTE (Voice-over LTE) calls – keeping them at par with the latest range of smartphones at a fraction of the cost. The feature phone market is expected to dent the growth of smartphone sales in India with several research houses echoing this sentiment. And it's not hard to see why feature phones still command such popularity in the country.

Why the feature phone is still king

The first, and most obvious, contributing factor to the popularity of feature phones is their price. With the average price of one hovering around the Rs 1500 mark, feature phones are far cheaper than their ‘smart’ counterparts and hence are more appealing to the income-strapped population in Tier-II and Tier-III cities and rural areas.

Another key feature that contributes to the prevalence of feature phones is their stellar battery life. Smartphones, for all their varied technological advancements, still haven't been able to come up with a battery that can go more than one day without needing a recharge. Feature phones, on the other hand, only need to be charged a couple of times a week – a boon for the people who live in areas with faltering electricity service.

And feature phone users don’t miss out on much by not using a smartphone. They can still access the internet and hence use ‘essential’ apps like Facebook and WhatsApp. The Government has also made sure that they do not fall behind as India surges towards becoming a digital economy. The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) has integrated the *99# messaging-based mobile banking service with its Unified Payments Interface (UPI), thereby allowing feature phone users to make money transfers digitally – a welcome feature following the demonetisation move last year. Feature phones accord their users with all the functionality of a smartphone sans a large touch-screen and a noteworthy camera. Also, since most Indians still utilise pre-paid mobile connections, using a phone that doesn't passively consume bandwidth is a welcome blessing.

This popularity of feature phones is observable in many of the world's emerging markets. Countries in Africa, South America, and South East Asia are all reporting a surge in feature phone shipments over the past few years. And it's only a matter of time before mobile manufacturers the world over begin reinventing what they once thought was a done-and-dusted piece of technology.