Despite almost everyone on earth having a mobile phone, the phone market can still grow: give users what they really want -- longer battery life.
Declining sales of mobile phones are spreading panic among manufacturers as the market reaches almost complete saturation with 6.8 billion users out of an estimated world population of about 7.3 billion. They are trying everything: smartwatches, wearable health devices, and multifunction wrist-sized appliances. But so far nothing has generated potential for the huge sales of previous years.
For a relatively low cost solution to this dilemma they might look at how traditional retail companies sell their goods: niche marketing, true niche marketing.
Check out any retail outlet. In any hard-goods appliance section, you’ll see not only a standard general purpose product, but also a variety of specialized versions of that product. Each may have a smaller base of customers, but these items can often be sold at a higher price, with cumulative sales that offset the expense of developing variations for particular niches.
Not in the mobile phone market, though. Most of the major mobile vendors and wireless phone services stick with "more is better" variations on the same theme with slightly different names and arrangements of features. Even on so-called basic feature phones users get features that they do not really want but accept because they come “free.”
A voice-only mobile phone like Dick Tracy’s Wrist Radio would have the advantage of voice communication anywhere, but extremely low power operation and long battery life.
(Source: Chester Gould)
You’d think that feature-rich smartphones with the “more is better” strategy would have taken over the market by now. But by current estimates, smartphones, which have been around for about 10 years, still only constitute 65-70 percent of mobile phones in the United States. Maybe the rest of us don’t want more features. Maybe something else is more important. And it is in those “something else” niches that I suspect are numerous opportunities.
But, so far I have not been able to find any narrowly focused niche variations. Virtually all mobile phones (both basic and smart) are simply more of the same in slightly different form factors. Mobile phones marketed for children, seniors, preteens, and college students all offer essentially the same services, just re-arranged or enhanced. I have looked at a number of other use case variations, but it all comes back to the same more-is-better approach.
One niche phone device I personally would be interested in is a simple voice phone with maybe an instant messaging addition, nothing more. Maybe it’s because as a child I read Dick Tracy comics and always wanted something close to his Wrist Radio to “talk” to anyone I wanted to from just about anywhere to without going into a phone booth.
But I also see no reason to use a smartphone because for me the extra features it provides are redundant. My constant companion is my laptop, which I carry with me almost everyplace I go. It has everything a smartphone has, with the added benefit of a larger and more readable and viewable interface. Of course it does not have instant and ubiquitous connectivity that everyone else seems to feel is necessary.
However, when I need quick communication, my old-fashioned basic mobile feature phone still serves. When I need the Internet there is always a way to get online through one of the now ubiquitous WiFi hot spots. In addition to Starbucks and every public library, Target stores and even Fry’s supermarkets are so equipped.
Selling low power special niches
Beyond my minimal set of requirements, I can see several niche product opportunities for such a voice-only alternative that would allow cell phone manufacturers to continue to grow the market. For example, how about those of us who have chronic diseases for whom a simple and quick connection to a relative, friend, or emergency medical service is important. Voice is often the fastest and easiest connection, especially for diabetics who can have either very low or very high glucose levels that make it hard to think clearly.
How about parents who want to remain in contact with their children? All I have found in this category are already feature loaded basic and smartphones with a few additions that appeal to children and GPS finder functions that appeal to their parents. But they have no better battery lifetimes than standard units.
A minimum feature children’s mobile phone with just voice, instant text messaging and a GPS finder would be very valuable because with fewer features the battery life would be greatly extended, a plus in situations where a child is lost. How about distance hikers who would like a phone they could depend on for weeks of battery life when they are far from a recharging power source?
The great benefit of a device with limited functions but long battery life is that it would give mobile manufacturers and service providers a feature to sell now that users are already demanding, without investing more advanced battery technology to achieve it. With fewer features, there is both less active and standby current that will be drawn from the battery, thus extending its life.
There are all sorts of variations and niches that I think would be valuable enough to select audiences that they would pay more for it: a mobile unit limited to communicating by voice, email, and instant messaging – no camera, no web browser, no video player function; a unit without a voice phone just for email and instant messaging and access to social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook.
So why have they not happened and being broadly promoted, are they likely to? The answer is simple: The customers of mobile phone manufacturers are the wireless phone providers, not the end users like you and me.
Service providers make their money from the various features included in both smartphones and basic feature phones, and the additional charges they can impose for bandwidth and usage. As long as those features are present, there is a small probability that you’ll start using them despite the additional charges.
Even if there is only a one-in-a-thousand chance that any mobile user will use any of those extra features, that is better than the zero probability if the function is not already on the phone ready to use. And the odds that in a world of about 6.8 billion mobile phone users, enough of us will succumb to those features to justify their inclusion.