One of the more interesting pieces of data available when comparing Android and iOS numbers is that whilst Android is outselling iOS (entirely logical, given the number of phone manufacturers), web usage statistics continues to show iOS devices outpacing Android devices:
The question that continually comes up is – why does Android outsell iOS, but iOS outpace Android when it comes to web usage?
There are undoubtedly many people who buy Android phones and use them as full smartphones – email, movies, web, games, etc. Yet clearly, there’s a bunch of people who don’t, and the obvious question is … why?
After my experiences over the last couple of days, I’d say it’s the death of the feature phone.
My mother has been using a basic phone pre-paid phone plan for some time. In fact, for so long that the plan is no longer available and most people haven’t even heard of it. Up until a couple of days ago, she’d been using an old Motorola feature phone I handed down to her. The phone was pretty basic by today’s standards, though in terms of feature phones when I’d purchased it in 2005 or so, it had been close to top of the line.
The phone had been becoming increasingly problematic – getting replacement batteries was becoming challenging, the phone was only charging half the time she plugged it in, and as is the case with those sorts of feature phones, it was becoming increasingly sluggish.
So when she came to Melbourne to visit me, it was time to find a new phone, and I pretty quickly came to one key conclusion:
Feature phones now suck.
Well, they always sucked, but the difference was that for the longest time they were the only option, and then for a long time after that, they were still at least well constructed and won on price.
No longer. Most feature phones you can buy from any old phone store are cheaply made and have few options available to them. Indeed, the biggest selling point I can see of many feature phones these days is dual-SIM capability. That’s nice, but I wanted that when I first started using mobile phones in the 1990s, not today.
Feature phones are still reasonably cheap … but the low end Android phones are in the same price bracket. Yesterday we went into a Telstra shop and looked at pre-paid phone options in their cheap bracket … the range $39 to $130. (These phones are locked to the Telstra network, but that didn’t matter since mum’s plan was with a Telstra reseller.)
Nokia and Samsung, plus some Telstra-badged feature phones were in that price bracket, and they were all pretty damn average. However, included in that bracket were also Android phones from HTC and LG, or, if you wanted to go a little higher, Samsung as well.
My mother uses a phone for two reasons: for texting, and for making calls. She’s not interested in data; she doesn’t have the internet at home and really isn’t interested in getting it. She doesn’t even make many calls on her phone – she’s taken well to texting and loves it for sending a quick message. Yet obviously, typing on a classic feature phone keypad where you have to tap each number multiple times to cycle through each letter option is slow and tedious.
A smartphone with a touch screen full keyboard is a compelling selling point against a multi-tap feature phone keypad. So $89 saw the purchase of an LG Optimus L3. Obviously she doesn’t want data used, and as we walked out of the store the phone basically prompted whether cellular data should be enabled or not. “No”. End of story. Now it’s a feature phone. I spent ten minutes customising it, and it’s left her with a single home screen:
Everything she wants is on one screen – the clock, the radio, the calculator, the camera and the photo gallery, as well phone, contacts and messages. Settings? The only time she’ll go into that is by mistake.
On a classic feature phone, those options would be scattered across 3 or 4 clumsy interface screens or require multiple menu/selection movements in order to get to them, let alone activate them. Via a full smartphone interface, it’s trivial to keep everything on one screen, immediately accessible. She still has a feature phone, but now:
- It’s a feature phone with a full keyboard.
- It’s a feature phone with full touch screen interface.
- It’s a feature phone with a real interface rather than those terrible interfaces that come in true feature phones.
It’s the new feature phone.
Android is going into two entirely different markets when it comes to mobile phones. There’s the area everyone focuses on – smartphones. That’s where people get confused over number of phones sold vs web usage coming from the phones. Then there’s the other market – the market where the cheaper Android phones are going head to head against the feature phones.
Honestly? The feature phones can’t compete. They’re dead. Nokia was once the king of feature phones, and now it’s circling the drain and momentum is working against it. If Windows phone can save Nokia, it seems it’ll be a herculean effort. There’s obviously a lot of talk about how smartphones increasingly eat into Nokia’s market share, but the presumption here is it’s happening at the high end, where people are replacing feature phones with smartphones for smartphone use. The lower end is not as much talked about – people replacing feature phones with smartphones intended to be used as advanced feature phones. It used to be that to get a “high quality” feature phone you might have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Now, you just buy a cheap Android and you still get a better experience than most feature phones ever managed to deliver.
The chances of me personally switching from iOS to Android are staggeringly low. I have a big investment in iOS apps, and much as Springboard is looking increasingly archaic, iOS works for me, and that’s what matters. I had no hesitation in pushing mum across from a feature phone to an Android phone though because the OS and the full touch-screen nature of the device makes it a very compelling feature phone.
There’s room in the smartphone market for multiple competitors – iOS, Android, and even Windows phone. My guess though after yesterday’s experience is the feature phone market has less than ten years life left in it. Low end smartphones used as feature phones will kill feature phones, and do so far more completely than we’ll see in the mobile vs desktop computing arena.
In answer to the question I posed in the title, I think it’s likely fair to say Android already has killed the feature phone. Feature phones just haven’t finished their death rattle yet.