'Dumb phones' learn from smart siblings

"Dumb phones" need not be left behind in the mobile app craze because they can adopt elements of smartphone success stories to bring value to users, advises an industry analyst.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

"Dumb phones" need not be left behind in the mobile app craze because they can adopt elements of smartphone success stories to bring value to users, according to an industry analyst.

CW Cheung, consulting director of Asia-Pacific at Ovum, said in an interview with ZDNet Australia's sister site ZDNet Asia that one key element of Apple's success story has been its overarching strategy across the company's mobile devices.

Mobile phone

"Dumb phones" need not be left behind by app developers. (Mobile phone image by Milica Sekulic, CC2.0)

The iPhone is not a mobile device unto itself but should be seen against the backdrop of Apple's success with the iPod among its users, which helped build up both a name for the company as well as user reliance on its iTunes music platform, explained Cheung.

Correspondingly, the iPad tablet built on the iPhone's success to offer the familiarity of mobile apps to users, he said.

And feature — or "dumb" — phones could mimic this strategy to compete with the smartphone crowd, he said. For instance, feature phones could offer platforms to win over users, such as music platforms, the analyst suggested.

Nokia, which makes the lion's share of the world's feature phones, has a music platform offering free music downloads to users of its XpressMusic line of devices.

Players in the feature phones market could also open up their platforms to cultivate a developer audience, said Cheung.

Citing Google's open source Android as an example, the analyst said this initiative won over phone makers because it is open source, thus, lowering licensing fees.

The platform's open nature also allowed third-party phone makers to customise the Google interface, giving them more flexibility with the hardware, he said, adding that this aspect also attracted developers who were given more power within the OS to develop apps.

"In the future, every phone will have some form of 'smart' features. Even 'dumb phone' designs could incorporate smart OSes and when [manufacturers] build up a big community of developers, it will be easier to standardise [apps] across platforms," said Cheung.

Building apps for "dumb phones"

Stefan Wessels, co-founder of Singapore-based mobile games maker Breakdesign, said a game does not have to be crippled and simplified for less powerful hardware.

The game developer tweaks its games, which are made in Flash Lite for mobile devices, to compensate for lower hardware capabilities by holding back on stereo sound or full-length music tracks in some cases, said Wessels. Other ways of simplifying a game could be in keeping some graphics in the background to silhouettes so that the game will not be too resource-demanding, he said in an email interview.

All these help apps run smoothly on low-end devices but do not take away the game's engagement from users, he said.

"The performance of our games on all targeted phones is always a factor," he noted. "This was a big driving force in the graphical style of some of our games, [such as] Dawn Of The Fly."

"When this game originally came out, it was important to us that it ran on all possible devices. This is one of the reasons we chose to go with the silhouette graphical style seen in this game," explained Wessels.

He recommended that developers looking to code for low-end phones should try getting their feet wet with a selected group of devices, before trying to scale for an entire range of feature phones. Some of the finer points in ensuring compatibility with all devices may be too daunting for new developers, he said.

"We believe though that the most important guideline is to constantly test, use and develop on the actual low-end device," Wessels said. "When we are developing for [Nokia] S40 devices, we would use them as our primary device for a couple of weeks. This really helps you understand the phone and what users want."

With the majority of the market rushing for the smartphone demographic, he noted that feature phones are being neglected.

Breakdesign's decision to target feature phones also opens the vast numbers of emerging market users to it. He said: "Being a South African-bred company, we don't always feel completely at home in the 'first' world and we feel our work has to be connected and relevant to where we come from, and to positively influence our players."

Via ZDNet Asia

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