More powerful devices, apps strengthen feature phone appeal

Technological advances to memory space and processing capabilities as well as better quality apps and discoverability will keep feature phone market growing despite competition, industry watchers say.

Feature phones will come with increased memory and processing capabilities in the next few years, which will further blur the lines with smartphones. Better quality apps and distribution channels will also ensure feature phones continue to play a significant role in the mobile industry, observers noted.

Nick Dillon, analyst for platforms and devices at Ovum, said current feature phones can be identified by its slower processors and smaller memory space when compared with smartphone devices. It does, however, have better battery life than its higher-end counterparts, he noted.

Elaborating the analyst said in an e-mail that the feature phone is currently a category sandwiched between ultra-low-end handsets and smartphones.

He explained that on the lowest end of the scale are devices that only have basic voice and texting functionalities, while feature phones include additional features such as cameras or music players and are able to execute Java Micro Edition- (ME) and Brew-based apps. Smartphones are top-tier devices that run advanced mobile operating systems (OSes) such as Apple iOS, Google Android and Windows Phone from Microsoft, Dillon stated.

That said, feature phones will become more powerful in the next 12 to 18 months as technology improves and more memory and processing speeds can be built into these devices, said the Ovum analyst. With these capabilities, users can expect full Web browsing experience and better features, he added.

Quality apps, better distribution boost appeal
In an August Ovum report, Dillon pointed out that poor distribution channels for apps targeting feature phones is hindering widespread adoption of such apps.

The analyst reckons the success of smartphone app markets such as the Android Market and Apple App Store will drive stakeholders such as large handset makers, operators and third-party app distributors to offer improved distribution channels for feature phone apps.

In the same report, Ovum predicted the mobile app market for feature phones will almost double to reach US$1 billion in revenues by 2016. Java ME was also identified as the best option for developing these apps, ahead of widget development platforms provided by Nokia and Opera.

Positive outlook ahead
With regard to market share, Dillon said that feature phones represent 77 percent of global mobile phone shipments currently. This figure is expected to decrease to 63 percent by 2016, though, on the back of increased uptake for smartphones and industry expansion, he added.

Gartner had reported in August that smartphone sales went up 74 percent year-on-year and accounted for 25 percent of overall sales in the second quarter of 2011--an increase from 17 percent in the same quarter last year.

"Smartphone sales continued to rise at the expense of feature phones," noted Roberta Cozza, principal research analyst at Gartner, in the report.

The overall mobile market will continue to grow as well, noted Dillon, which means that even though the percentage of feature phone shipments will contract, the actual volume shipment is expected to increase from 2.2 billion handsets to 2.3 billion in 2016.

Dominant feature phone maker Nokia, too, expressed hopes for continued growth in this device category.

According to a Singapore-based Nokia spokesperson, more than three billion people still do not own a mobile phone. For those who do, the vast majority only has access to short message services but not Web browsing, he added.

As such, the Finnish phonemaker's mobile strategy to "connect the next billion" people to the Internet via a mobile device stands it in good stead, the spokesperson explained in an e-mail.

Consumers in emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and Africa are also demanding more from device makers, wanting "affordability, quality and reliability but not compromising on experience", he added.