Feature phones: Is the end near?

IDC's latest insight into mobile phone shipments states that the worldwide market grew more than 6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2011. Encouraging news for the industry, given the economic uncertainties that seem to continue unabated.

But one blot on this rosy landscape was IDC's assertion that feature phones have become notably less popular and volumes are declining faster than previously anticipated.

While I'm confident IDC can justify this downward slide in feature phone shipments, I remain sceptical that smartphones--in their present format--will become the device of choice for the majority.

I watch many owners of smartphones to see what use they make of the numerous features and applications these devices can support--and from a very unscientific viewpoint, the vast majority seem to use primarily voice and messaging services.

Many users get confused and/or frustrated after attempting to access a website that fails to support mobiles. Or the handset operating system takes the user into a dialogue session that seems to offer no eventual return.

I also accept that this behaviour is age related.

But having attempted to use a smartphone myself, albeit not the latest available, I have found the experience largely unrewarding. It's not helped by poor battery life, the bulky size and unnecessary complexity.

I have been shown many times by enthusiastic owners of smartphones a specific app they've downloaded. While I can see the potential use of some, I remain sceptical as to how often these are used after the initial purchase.

So, I remain a Luddite with regard to smartphones, and hold high my rather ancient and battered feature phone as a symbol to smartphone owners that there is an alternative.

IDC's Ramon Llamas also accepts, as part of the company's mobile phone technology and trends team, that feature phones still comprise the majority of all mobile phone shipments.

"Feature phones accounted for a majority of shipments from four of the five market leaders during the quarter," Llamas said. "Even though their proportion is eroding, feature phones maintain their appeal on the basis of price and ease of use."

However, he maintains that feature phones are evolving to become more like smartphones, and will incorporate mobile Internet and third-party apps--a strategy he believes will stem the decline in shipment for these devices.

So, will everyone eventually become a smartphone owner? While the vendors and operators might encourage this, I wonder whether the average consumer will understand the benefit of making this transition. --Paul