Are touchscreens the most important feature of smartphones?

Mike Dano
Sales of smartphones are rapidly overtaking those of feature phones. According to comScore, almost 30 percent of Americans now carry smartphones. And that number is set to skyrocket--Peter Chou, the CEO of smartphone maker HTC, recently predicted that smartphones will outsell feature phones by year-end.

So what are all those new smartphone shoppers looking for in their devices? Nielsen recently provided to FierceWireless the results of the firm's latest survey of cell phone shoppers' top criteria for feature phone and smartphone purchases.

    ace  Syndicate content Nielsen: Top Reasons for Choosing Device -Smartphone vs. Feature Phone
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The results show that feature phone shoppers are looking for one thing: Cheap phones. Price ranked as the far and away the most important element of feature phone selection, outranking factors including battery life and brand. And I don't think this is surprising: Feature phones have become a commodity, and they're all about the same.

Interestingly, for feature phones the next most important factor is ease of use, which is a vague and difficult to define characteristic that I'm guessing prospective buyers would have a hard time discerning while shopping for feature phones in Wal-Mart or Best Buy. The third most important characteristic for feature phones is design, which means that Americans shopping for feature phones are really looking for cheap phones that look good.

Now, switching to smartphones, the results become more interesting--and less straightforward. If you look hard, you can see that touchscreen capability ranks as the most important factor in a smartphone. But that's not really a surprise since most modern smartphones feature touchscreens (except for a few BlackBerrys, but Research In Motion has more problems than just a lack of touchscreens.) The second most important characteristic of smartphones is a tossup among Internet access, apps, access to email, design, ease of use and price. I think the conclusion to draw from this is that smartphone users want a lot of different things out of their device, which means that smartphone vendors will need to cover all their bases to be successful in the smartphone market.

There are a few more items worth pointing out: Users, at least for now, don't care about video capability. That either means they don't expect to use it or they just don't know what it involves. But for those smartphone vendors attempting to differentiate via large screens and TV and movie services, these findings should give them pause. Another item worth noting is the high score for Qwerty phones from both feature phone and smartphone buyers. I think this is an indication that there's a good market for phones with keyboards, despite Apple's clear aversion to the feature.

Finally, I'm surprised battery life didn't rank higher, considering all the effort smartphone makers have put into making sure their devices can power through a user's day. This finding either means that shoppers simply expect good battery life and therefore don't rank it highly, or they're content with a poor battery if they can get all the other stuff (I'm leaning toward the former).

I'd love to see how 3-D imagery ranks in next year's Nielsen surveys. --Mike