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Getting Smarter About Feature Phones

Reading through the media coverage from CES and Mobile World Congress anyone would think that the only devices in this world that are relevant to mobile data use are smartphones. Don’t get me wrong, smartphones are an impressive class of devices that are pushing the envelope when it comes to the consumer experience with mobile content, and the next wave of storefronts ushered in by their recent growth have done wonders for the mobile application landscape. However, it is worth stepping back and acknowledging one thing: despite the continuing excitement over advanced smartphones, most cell phone owners still carry more affordable feature phones — and will continue to have a feature phone for the foreseeable future.

It’s not sexy, but it’s true.

A review of industry forecasts indicates that in 2009, feature phones represented >90% of the devices in people’s hands worldwide. That share is expected to decline over the next few years, but projections indicate that feature phones will still represent over 80% of the global mobile phone installed base in 2014. Obviously, the picture changes a bit when you look only at developed markets. However, even in the US, the market most highly penetrated by smartphones today, more than half of all devices in market in 2014 are expected to be feature phones.

That’s a lot of addressable devices.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for operators, developers and platform providers like Qualcomm. An analysis of survey data from comScore M:Metrics suggests that in developed markets the adoption of data services by feature phone users versus their smartphone counterparts is far lower. For example, 10 – 20% of feature phone owners download applications and content versus 40 – 60% of smartphone owners.

Now, there are clearly a number of factors that might explain this difference, including the fact that early adopters are likely driving the uptake of smartphones; the fact that they have larger screen sizes and resolutions; and that many possess advanced data features like full HTML browsers.

The challenge is how to improve the feature phone experience to drive higher rates of data adoption among these consumers. Primary research commissioned by Qualcomm Internet Services (QIS) in December 2009 indicates that once a consumer adopts data services their content preferences are broadly similar across device types in terms of the mix of browsing, music, video and personalization.

So what might it take to get more feature phone users to adopt data? Simply put, a user experience designed to improve the accessibility and ease of use of data services. The INQ1 “Facebook phone” launched with mobile operator 3 in 2008 illustrates this point beautifully, achieving data usage rates comparable to that of smartphone users. According to the handset maker, 65% of INQ1 users access Facebook from this device, with the majority logging on at least once a day.

In terms of the opportunity at hand, the numbers speak for themselves.

Device Class 2014E Global
Installed Base
Target Data
Adoption Rate
Potential Addressable
Users
Smartphones 934 M 50% 467 M
Feature Phones 5,500 M 15% 825 M

Sources: Compiled from Strategy Analytics (November 2009), Wireless Intelligence (January 2009), comScore M:Metrics (November 2009)

At today’s data adoption rates, the number of feature phone data users worldwide is still expected to significantly exceed the number of smartphone users in 2014. We can bring this group’s usage levels closer to that of today’s smartphone owners. The key is more thoughtful, integrated designs that support easy-to-use and relevant data services. If we can make that happen, the industry opportunity is explosive. And that’s something we can all get behind.

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