Just what is the difference between a smartphone and a featurephone now, anyway?

Just what is the difference between a smartphone and a featurephone now, anyway?

Summary: With the announcement of new ranges of low cost devices at this year's MWC in Barcelona, it's time to ask: what is the difference between a smartphone and a featurephone in today's market?

SHARE:
2

When Firefox talks about $25 handsets and Nokia launches a €29 phone that has Facebook and Twitter and Bing search, and an €89 phone with Skype and Android apps, it's time to start asking what a smartphone actually is.

Things are perhaps a little clearer right at the bottom end, where we can still point at a phone and say "this is a featurephone". The recently announced €29 Nokia 220 runs what the company coyly refers to as Nokia OS; that's the basic, real-time, "does the phone bits" operating system that doesn't have any APIs for developers to code against.

The UI and the apps must be built in something else, which we're assuming is a cut-down version of S40 — or possibly even a derivative of the near defunct S30. It's clearly a featurephone, as there's no third-party software development and no app store — but by adding social apps and a cloud-accelerated browser, it's clear that featurephones are no longer just phones that make calls and send texts and have a game or two to keep you occupied.

Higher up the scale sits another Nokia range, its Asha phones. They're still classed as featurephones, but with touchscreens with reasonable resolution, they're on a par with the original iPhone. There's even some scope for application development with S40's J2ME APIs, though they're really only for trusted Nokia partners. But there's one big difference between the Asha and the old featurephone model which leaves the phone the same the day your contract ran out as the day you bought it: Asha gets upgrades.

It's an odd combination: a featurephone with some smartphone capabilities. So we probably shouldn't be surprised that some high-end Ashas are being marketed as smartphones — especially when they're being sold in markets that are being targeted by locally developed Android devices from companies such as Karbonn.

The rise of the low-cost Android devices has to be seen as a threat to Nokia's low cost, emerging markets business, as the capabilities of those low-cost Android devices built for exactly those markets outpace the ageing S40/Nokia OS combination.

It's a situation that neatly brings us to the Nokia X, with its forked variant of the AOSP platform. It runs Android apps so it must be a smartphone, right? Maybe.

Nokia sold vast amounts of Symbian phones and they were technically smartphones, because you could install extra apps on them. But in practice, most people installed only one or two extra apps on their Symbian devices. They bought them to make calls, send texts, take photos, play games, listen to music, maybe look at a map and do some web searches — and they picked them because they were cheap.

These are the devices that sub-$200, and now sub-$100, Android phones have been replacing in vast swathes; the not-actually-dumb phones, that are still a long way away from a top-end Nexus or Droid (or iPhone or Lumia). It's a market BlackBerry used to do well in with its pre-pay phones.

Sold on a family plan so you got two for the price of one and with a great keyboard for texting on, plus free messaging with BBM, they were great value. They were built with features like dual-SIM, and made with last year's processor for a much lower cost and in much higher volume.

If you're a heavy smartphone user, you have a tiny computer in your pocket that brings you the web and Twitter, summons your Uber ride, lets you share a Secret, record Vines, edit documents, book hotels, track flights, listen to Pandora, crush candy, destroy pigs and birds alike, fly quadricopters and drive robot balls, and continually try out the latest new app.

You're living in a rich, rich world of information and entertainment and control and connectivity. But even if your phone can do all of that, not everyone will do it all (or want to do it all) - even though they want more from a phone than just talking and texting. It wasn't just fashion that stopped BlackBerrys from selling, after all. But there are people who still want a phone with a flashlight rather than a flashlight app.

If we could figure out how many Android phones (and even last year's model cheaper iPhones) are bought as smart feature phones, we'd have a much better idea of what the real smartphone market looks like. With most statistics about app usage from the US, it's hard to get a global picture — and harder still to get a breakdown of app usage on lower cost devices.

Asha's success makes it clear that it's not necessary to have a bustling app ecosystem to sell outside the EU and US, just a handful of key apps built into the device. With Nokia X in 70 or so markets, it's going to be interesting to see if it replaces Asha, or competes with regional device manufacturers that are using Android like Karbonn.

Obviously not everyone who buys a cheaper smartphone picks it because they don't need more power. If you're on a fixed budget, you're on a fixed budget. But it seems equally clear that a modern featurephone looks much more like a smartphone than it used to.

Facebook and web search and Twitter and expandable memory for photos and music are part of the basics — and messaging services such as Skype and WhatsApp are joining them. Something that plays YouTube videos and Spotify channels and Minion Rush might be a smartphone — or that might all be just what a good featurephone does these days.

Further reading

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Nokia

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

2 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • See Android and iOS

    Android devices are smartphones. iOS devices are feature phones. It comes down to the answer to the question, "Can I do whatever I want to do on my device, like I can on a PC?" If the answer is yes, than you've got a smartphone.

    So:
    No sideloading of apps? Featurephone.
    No ability to install new drivers or codecs? Featurephone.
    No ability in change the default programs? Featurephone.
    No ability to overwrite built-in OS features, like the stock keyboard? Featurephone.
    x I'm tc
  • No data

    That's how I always distinguished the difference.
    Low_tech