Are feature phones making a comeback?
Everyday there is a new headline on smartphones. The latest flagship launches by this brand and that brand, the new features, bigger screens, etc. However, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about the good old basic feature phone?
Remember the old 'dial and end' phones? The ones that never died on you even if you didn't charge them for a week. These are what IDC calls 'feature phones' - basic devices whose sole purpose is to make a voice call. However, does anyone buy feature phones anymore?
With the recent rise of smartphones, a lot of people are under the false impression that feature phones are dying off, that they are no longer relevant, or that they must make up only a very small portion of overall mobile shipments.
However, you would be surprised to learn that, contrary to this myth, feature phones are certainly still relevant. According to IDC's latest Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, it made up 28.4 per cent of all mobile phone shipments globally in Q1 2018.
For the Middle East and Africa (MEA), this figure reaches a staggering 50.6 per cent, which means around 40 million of the 79.2 million devices shipped into this region last quarter were feature phones. MEA is the second-largest region globally for these devices, accounting for 30 per cent of all feature phones shipped globally.
The proportion of feature phones in MEA actually grew last year, with their share of overall mobile phone shipments increasing from 47.9 per cent in 2016 to 52.1 per cent in 2017. So, in this age of smart devices, why are feature phones still shipping in such large quantities?
Sitting here in Dubai, with the latest technological advancements being announced day after day, it can be hard to imagine who still uses a humble feature phone. But you don't have to go far to find the answer; take a short drive to Fujairah or Ajman and you will see whole groups of people that only use feature phones. And despite the region's penchant for all things digital, feature phones still accounted for 31 per cent of mobile shipments to the GCC in Q1 2018.
Once you leave the GCC and look at the massive continent of Africa, you will realise there are many underdeveloped nations with such poor cell phone coverage and low disposable incomes that their populations can't afford to purchase event the cheapest of smartphones.
The main reason why feature phones continue to survive is the incredibly low cost of purchasing one. While smartphones are available for less than $35 in some parts of the region, feature phones can be picked up for as little as $5! With disposable income being so low in many parts of Africa, this $30 price difference is significant.
Another major reason for the enduring popularity of feature phones is their reliability, a characteristic that has two key facets. The first, and most important of these, is battery life. Given that there are parts of Africa where people may not have access to a power outlet for up to three weeks at a time, the attraction of a reliable communication device that will not die on them after a day of use is clear to see.
For such consumers, feature phones are the obvious choice; but even those consumers that can afford a smartphone will often have a feature phone as a secondary backup device due to the long battery-life factor.
The second facet of reliability relates to connectivity. Due to the poor infrastructure in many African countries and the limited 3G coverage in a lot of rural areas, a considerable portion of the continent continues to rely on 2G network connections. As such, 2G feature phones are much more reliable when it comes to finding a working signal.
All these reasons combine to ensure that feature phones continue to see stable demand across the region. And while shipments will decline steadily over the coming years, feature phones will continue to remain relevant for some time yet, with IDC forecasting that they will still account for 39 per cent of all mobile phone shipments to MEA in 2022.
- Nabila Popal is Senior Research Manager at International Data Corporation (IDC), Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.