Flip-phones, clamshell phones, dumb phones…these are all names often given to traditional feature phones. Unlike smartphones, feature phones provide basic services with a much less robust interface. And for some, having a feature phone suggests you’re either archaic or simply out of touch. But for millions around the world, these “dumb phones” offer tremendous opportunity to access information. And for the companies providing these services, the opportunity is excellent as well.
New developments affecting feature phones have allowed these dumb phones to make a comeback. These devices now have some capacity to utilize major apps many of us take for granted in our daily lives. Thus, their formal name is now smart feature phones instead of dumb phones. And with a lower price tag and cheap unlimited data, underserved regions of the world are now considered emerging markets. The potential impact this may have on world literacy and innovation could be astounding.
Smart Feature Phone Sales by the Numbers
Traditional dumb phones have the classic clamshell form and physical keypad instead of a touchscreen. However, newer smart feature phones have added a chipset and operating system that enables high-speed Internet and some application use. These added features have driven nearly 500 million in dumb phone sales since 2017. As a result, total sales revenues are just under $30 billion since that time.
Three key attributes of smart feature phones are driving these sales. These include device prices that are often around $25; cheap access to unlimited data; and prolonged battery life. In regions where per capita annual incomes are less than $1000 a year, dumb phones provide the only real option. Thus, millions in India, Africa, and other developing nations have been increasingly purchasing these devices. And these trends are expected to continue into the future.
Major Smart Feature Phone Players Emerging
One of the most notable companies taking advantage of this new “dumb phone” revolution is KaiOS. This company arose from the failed Firefox OS pursuits in 2017 and currently provides the operating system for most feature phones. In fact, Google invested $22 million in KaiOS recently to foster the development of smart features on these devices. These smart features will soon include Google maps, search, and voice assistant as well. Already, most smart feature phones allow the use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. Thus, these devices are quickly becoming less like the dumb phones of old.
A number of feature phone manufacturers and service providers are also getting in on the action. Dumb phone makers like Nokia have regained popularity with its Nokia 8110 feature phone. Micromax and Alcatel are other device makers that are popular as well. But the company that has gained the most ground is Reliance Jio. Operating on a KaiOS platform, Reliance Jio has enjoyed tremendous feature phone sales in India. In fact, it catapulted KaiOS’ operating system above Apple and just behind Android in that market.
The Potential Dumb Phones Have for Global Social Change
The areas of the world where dumb phones are making a resurgence are notably regions with poor literacy rates. Estimates suggest that literacy rates are below 70 percent in several areas of India and Africa. This makes smart features like Google voice assistant more functional for such populations. But at the same time, smart feature phones offer the potential for advancing literacy and knowledge. Ironically, it might just be these dumb phones that provide a major source of opportunity for global social advancement overall.