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A feature phone is a mobile phone that retains the form factor of earlier-generation phones, with button-based input and a small display. Feature phones are sometimes called dumbphones in contrast with touch-input smartphones. They tend to use an embedded operating system with a small and simple graphical user interface, unlike large and complex mobile operating systems like Android or iOS. Feature phones typically provide voice calling and text messaging functionality as well as basic multimedia and Internet capabilities and other services offered by the user's wireless service provider. Feature phones often contain hardware including a backlit LCD screen, a hardware notification LED, a micro USB port, a physical keyboard, a microphone, an SD card slot, a rear-facing camera to record video and capture pictures, and GPS. Some feature phones include a rudimentary app store that includes basic software such as mobile games, calendar and calculator programs.
Prior to the popularity of smartphones, the term 'feature phone' was often used on high-end phones with assorted functions for retail customers, developed at the advent of 3G networks, which allowed sufficient bandwidth for these capabilities. Feature phones were typically mid-range devices, between basic phones on the low end with few or no features beyond basic dialing and messaging, and business-oriented smartphones on the high end. The best-selling feature phones include those by Nokia, the Razr by Motorola, the multimedia-enabled Sony Ericsson W580i, and the LG Black Label Series that targeted retail customers.
Differences and similarities between other devices
Feature phones run on proprietary firmware, usually MediaTek MAUI with third-party software support through platforms such as Java ME or BREW. The proprietary operating systems were not designed in mind to develop nor handle the intensive applications found on iOS and Android, both of which specifically cater to third-party application development which became increasingly important.
Depending on extent of functionality, feature phones may have many of the capabilities of a smartphone, within certain cases. For example, today's feature phones typically serve as a portable media player, and can have digital cameras, GPS navigation, Wi-Fi and mobile broadband internet access, and mobile gaming through discrete apps.
In developed economies, feature phones are primarily specific to niche markets, or have become merely a preference—owing to certain feature combinations not available in other devices, such as affordability, durability, simplicity, and extended battery life per one charge (viz standby and talk times). In emerging markets, a feature phone remains the primary means of communication for many.
A well-designed feature phone can be used in industrial environments and the outdoors, at workplaces that proscribe dedicated cameras, and as an emergency telephone. Several models are equipped with hardware functions — such as FM radio and flashlight — that prevent the device from becoming useless in the event of a major disaster, or entirely obsolete, if and when 2G network infrastructure is shut down. Other feature phones are specifically designed for the elderly, and yet others for religious purposes.
Feature phones are often kept in phone manufacturers' lineups for several reasons:
- They are lower priced than smartphones, because:
- Most patents on basic mobile device technology have expired. Some expired patents make it possible to add more functions in their basic form that before were usually the purview of mid-range or high-end devices. Many standards-essential patents are required to have fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory licensing (RAND/FRAND), which typically means that license payments for each device using a standards-essential technology must be low enough that it will not disincentivize adoption of a standard or cause legal conflict;
- Less complexity translates to simpler and cheaper assembly;
- Relative modularity: a feature phone can be designed around one or two primary functions: flashlight, radio, MicroSD card slot for additional storage, music player, camera, Internet browser, and wireless hotspot for more advanced devices. Many basic phones now include some of that functionality, rendering them as either basic feature phones or smart feature phones—whereas advanced feature phones include all of these and more.
From the point of view of markets and consumers, there are several situations for which feature phones are beneficial:
- Power requirements are typically relatively low, which translates to extended talk and standby times.
- Anticipated loss, damage, or reasonably rough use: Feature phones are often more durable, less complex, and more affordable, and for these reasons are preferred as travel devices, children's devices, and for field use scenarios. The devices' low cost means that loss of such an item is manageable, and usually serves as a disincentive for theft in mature markets.
- Liberal and mature markets are well-suited for specific functions: In countries where payphones have been discontinued, some operators offer prepaid cellular plans with a SIM card and a basic mobile phone in one package for about the same amount a mid-tier calling card would have cost (€15 for the whole package in some areas). Travelers may often prefer this option, given expensive roaming fees.
The first cellular phone, the Motorola DynaTAC released in 1984, is considered a basic mobile phone due to its inability to do anything more than making voice calls and simple text messages.
Despite the introduction of smartphones in the mid-1990s, ignited with the August 1994 release of the IBM Simon, Nokia Communicator from 1996 on, and the BlackBerry line of handheld personal digital assistants from Research in Motion, feature phones enjoyed unchallenged popularity into the mid 2000s. In North America, smartphones, such as Palm and BlackBerry, were still considered a niche category for enterprise use. Outside North America, Nokia's Symbian devices had captured the smartphone market, in which price was the only barrier to entry, and Nokia offered smartphones across all feasible price segments. In the mid-2000s, phone makers such as Nokia and Motorola enjoyed record sales of feature phones. In developed economies, fashion and brand drove sales, as markets had matured and people moved to their second and third phones. In the U.S., technological innovation with regard to expanded functionality was a secondary consideration, as phone designs there centered on miniaturisation.
However, consumer-oriented smartphones such as the iPhone and those running Android fundamentally changed the market, with Steve Jobs proclaiming in 2007 that "the phone was not just a communication tool but a way of life". Existing feature phone operating systems at the time, such as Symbian, were not designed to handle additional tasks beyond communication and basic functions, and due to the complex bureaucracy and other factors, they never developed a thriving software ecosystem. By contrast, iPhone OS (renamed iOS in 2010) and Android were designed as a robust OS, embracing third-party software, and having capabilities such as multitasking and graphics capabilities in order to meet future consumer demands. These platforms also eclipsed the popularity of smartphone platforms historically aimed towards enterprise markets, such as BlackBerry.
There has been an industry shift from feature phones (including low-end smartphones), which rely mainly on volume sales, to high-end flagship smartphones which also enjoy higher margins, thus manufacturers find high-end smartphones much more lucrative than feature phones.
The shift away from feature phones has forced wireless carriers to increase subsidies of handsets, and the high selling-prices of flagship smartphones have had a negative effect on the wireless carriers, who have seen their EBITDA margins drop as they sold more smartphones and fewer feature phones. To help make up for this, carriers typically use high-end devices to upsell customers onto higher-priced service plans with increased data allotments. Trends have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for smartphones that include newer features and technology, and that smartphones were considered to be more relevant in present-day popular culture than feature phones.
During the mid-2000s, best-selling feature phones such as the fashionable flip-phone Motorola Razr, multimedia Sony Ericsson W580i, and the LG Black Label Series not only occupied the mid-range pricing in a wireless provider's lineup, they made up the bulk of retail sales as smartphones from BlackBerry and Palm were still considered a niche category for business use. Even as late as 2009, smartphone penetration in North America was low.
In 2011, feature phones accounted for 60 percent of the mobile telephones in the United States and 70 percent of mobile phones sold worldwide. According to Gartner in Q2 2013, 225 million smartphones were sold which represented a 46.5 percent gain over the same period in 2012, while 201 million feature phones were sold which was a decrease of 21 percent year over year, the first time that smartphones have outsold feature phones. Smartphones accounted for 51.8 percent of mobile phone sales in the second quarter of 2013, resulting in smartphone sales surpassing feature phone sales for the first time.
A survey of 4,001 Canadians by Media Technology Monitor in late 2012 suggested about 83 percent of the anglophone population owned a cellphone, up from 80 percent in 2011 and 74 percent in 2010. About two thirds of the mobile phone owners polled said they had a smartphone and the other third had feature phones or non-smartphones. According to MTM, non-smartphone users are more likely to be female, older, have a lower income, live in a small community and have less education. The survey found that smartphone owners tend to be male, younger, live in a high-income household with children in the home, and residents of a community of one million or more people. Students also ranked high among smartphone owners.
Mobile phones in Japan diverged from those used elsewhere, with carriers and devices often implementing advanced features (such as NTT docomo's i-mode platform for mobile internet in 1999, mobile payments, mobile television, and near field communications) that were not yet widely used, or even adopted, outside of Japan. This divergence has been cited as an example of Galápagos syndrome; as a result, these feature phones are retroactively referred to as a Gala-phone (ガラケー, gara-kei), blending with "mobile phone" (携帯, keitai). While smartphones have gained popularity (and implement features introduced on them), many gala-phones are still commonly used, citing preferences for the devices and their durability over smartphones.
Mobile games oriented towards smartphones have seen significant growth and revenue in Japan, even though there were three times fewer smartphone users in the country than in the United States as of 2017.
Several distinct operating systems have been developed which can run on a feature phone. These operating systems are designed to be lightweight to increase the feature phone battery life, work well with a small screen which does not have touch features, and also work well with a small hardware keyboard such as T9 keyboard commonly found on feature phones.
Smarterphone has developed Smarterphone OS, a full operating system designed for feature phones. The first release was in 2008.
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Galápagos syndrome n. The scourge of Japanese mobile companies, whose superadvanced 3G handsets won't work on foreign cell networks. It's named for the birds of the Galápagos, whose specialized beaks don't cut it on the mainland.
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