A feature phone (also spelled featurephone) is a type or class of mobile phone that retains the form factor of earlier generations of mobile telephones, typically with press-button based inputs and a small non-touch display. They tend to use an embedded operating system with a small and simple graphical user interface, unlike large and complex mobile operating systems such as Android from Google or iOS from Apple. Their functions are limited compared to smartphones, which integrate the phone with an internet communications device.
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 mobile network operator. The hardware of feature phones often include a backlit liquid-crystal display (LCD) screen, a hardware notification LED, a micro USB port, a physical keyboard, a microphone, a microSD card slot, a rear-facing camera to record video and capture pictures, and GPS services. Some feature phones include a rudimentary app store that includes basic mobile apps such as a calendar, calculator, mobile web, and mobile games.
Prior to the popularity of smartphones, the term 'feature phone' was often used on high-end mobile telephones 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 mobile telephones on the low end, with few or no features beyond basic calling and messaging, and business-oriented smartphones on the high end. The best-selling feature phones include those by Nokia, the Motorola Razr, the multimedia-enabled Sony Ericsson W580i, and the LG Black Label Series that targeted retail customers.
Feature phones run on proprietary firmware; for example MediaTek MAUI, with third-party software support through platforms such as Java ME or Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (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-specified 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. In Pakistan and other South Asian countries, many mobile phone outlets use feature phones for balance transfer referred as easyload.
Feature phones are often kept in mobile phone manufacturers' ranges for several reasons:
From the point of view of markets and consumers, there are several situations for which feature phones are beneficial:
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.
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 range of handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) from Research in Motion (RiM); 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 early 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 loyalty drove sales, as markets had matured and people moved to their second and third phones. In the United States, technological innovation with regard to expanded functionality was a secondary consideration, as phone designs there centred 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 operating system, 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 mobile network operators to increase subsidies of handsets, and the high selling-prices of flagship smartphones have had a negative effect on the mobile network operators, who have seen their earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation (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 range, 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 worldwide which represented a 46.5 percent gain over the same period in 2012, while 210 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 (MTM) 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 mobile operating systems have been developed which can operate 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.
Nokia has developed the Series 30, Series 30+, Series 40 and Feature OS software platform and application user interfaces which run the Nokia Asha platform.
MediaTek has developed an embedded operating system named MAUI Runtime Environment which is based on Nucleus RTOS.
NTT Docomo has developed MOAP software platform and OPP (Operator Pack) (Japanese).
Qualcomm has developed a lightweight runtime environment Brew MP, an operating system for ARM phones REX OS, KCP (Japanese), and KCP+ (Japanese).
Tizen Association (formerly LiMo Foundation) has developed a Linux-based LiMo Platform for smartphones.
Smarterphone has developed Smarterphone OS, a full operating system designed for feature phones. The first release was in 2008.
KaiOS Tech has developed KaiOS, a lightweight fork of Firefox OS which was originally developed by Mozilla.
The European analyst firm Canalys has released a study that predicts shipments of smartphones will exceed those of handhelds in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region for the first time in 2003. It says about 3.3 million smartphones will be sold in the region this year, as opposed to 2.8 million handhelds.
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.
'Galapagos syndrome', a phrase originally coined to describe Japanese cell phones that were so advanced they had little in common with devices used in the rest of the world, could potentially spread to other parts of society. Indeed signs suggest it is happening already.