NEW YORK -- We all feel like we’ve already seen the movie: “Downfall of the Feature Phones.” Our heroes are Apple and Samsung. They take over the world with their smartphones, while Nokia — the stereotype of the bumbling rival — ignores the early warning signs of smartphone ascendancy, spurns the lovely ingénue, Android, and ends up in bed with the Vamp of Redmond, Microsoft.
As simplistic as this plotline sounds, it’s the narrative many in the industry have come to accept.
But here’s the thing. Have we actually seen how this movie ends?
I, for one, believe that the “Downfall of the Feature Phones” may have a surprising, alternative ending (but only in the Blu-Ray version).
As in any good thriller, it goes, something like this: Just about when we all thought Jason Bourne — I mean, feature phones — must be dead this time, boing! They spring back to life and come back as… “entry-level” smartphones.
I anticipate more switcheroo’s in sequels (“The Feature Phone Ultimatum,” “The Feature Phone Legacy,” “The Feature Phone vs. Godzilla”), in which incumbents who choose to ignore the new “entry-level” category (‘because it’s too low end’) are pitted against a host of newcomers who seize the opportunity to build a fortune on entry-level smartphones. Incumbents could get clobbered.
Is it plausible? You bet. I already see signs that make such plots believable.
First is the emergence of Firefox OS. While the jury’s still out on yet another new mobile OS, this HTML5-based mobile operating system may have enough power to stir the debate.
Second, there is mounting market pressure (from handset vendors and operators alike) for low, low-cost smartphones. In an interview with EE Times in early June, Spreadtrum’s CEO Leo Li was on the record by saying that “our customers are ready to roll out $40 ‘real’ smartphones this year.” Every chip company and handset vendor is in the market for a solution that makes all levels of smartphones possible at low cost.
Third, operators are hatching a plot to retain full control of the billing relationship with subscribers. “Currently, operator billing is available for Android for only a handful of operators, all in developed countries,” according to Daniel Gleeson, an analyst on Mobile at IHS Screen Digest. “Otherwise payments for apps, games etc. go through credit card companies. Obviously operators would prefer that this goes through them as they would get a small slice of that pie as well.”
Fourth, as legal wrangling escalates on Apple iOS vs. Google’s Android IP front, handset vendors are surreptitiously looking for an alternative system – possibly something available for free.
Fifth, let’s not forget about a huge global market -- beyond the United States and Europe -- that hasn’t embraced smartphones yet. This creates big openings for developers of new technologies and new players on the mobile market.
Above all, I’m convinced that feature phones (OK, “entry-level smartphones”) are not going away, largely because the definition of smartphones vs. feature phones, in my opinion, is fundamentally phony. At best, it’s based on a self-serving marketing pitch by smartphone proponents.
For example, what exactly differentiates an entry-level smartphone from a feature phone?
Is it an operating system? Is it an applications processor? Is it an ability to run third-party apps on one’s phone?
You may say, all of the above. But from a user’s standpoint, a so-called feature phone today is already feature-rich — equipped with wireless connectivity (WiFi, GPS, mobile broadband), Internet access and an integrated CMOS sensor camera.
Assume that I’m a feature phone supplier eager to get on the smartphone bandwagon. If I change the OS, and make sure my new feature phone runs a few apps, I could, in theory, call my feature phone an entry-level smartphone. All I need do is keep the system-level cost down – a CPU, apps processor, graphics, memory footprint, OS, display, all included.
That’s where Firefox OS comes in – in my opinion.
If you want to morph a feature phone into an entry-level smartphone, Android can help. But Firefox OS may be able to do the job better.