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How much power do feature phones really have?

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Digital Technology

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This post is by Andy Grossman, a SmartBrief contributing editor covering telecommunications and technology.

Much to my daughter’s chagrin, last year I offered her my old i335 Motorola handset, a basic phone with a screen barely larger than a stamp. “This can’t do anything,” she said in disgust.

“You’d be surprised,” I replied and showed her the native applications store embedded in the phone. She wouldn’t be alone in answering with such disdain.

While smartphones have gotten all the glory, the rising tide of technology that is turning mobile devices into mini-computers has, in turn, sexed up feature phones and turned them into an important weapon for carriers to reach customers who can’t afford more costly handsets.

Think of feature phones partly as training wheels for those who can get their feet wet in accessing mobile applications before moving up to sleeker smartphone apps. For carriers, they are a midrange offering for subscribers who are not quite ready for smartphones, either due to cost or a fear of high-tech gadgets.

“While the broader feature phone segment is not growing as fast as the smartphone segment, what we are seeing are a sub-segment of feature phones … that behave like smartphones,” said senior analyst Alex Spektor of global research firm Strategy Analytics. “For carriers, the big thing these phones get you is a stepping stone in terms of user experience.”

Feature phones are the Silent Majority of the telecom set: They’re largely ignored, but 80% of the world uses them, especially in emerging countries.

Moore’s Law has begun to allow phone makers to produce feature phones with smartphone technology since 2009. Some come equipped with touch screens and interactive media capabilities that offer access to more and richer apps. Verizon has sold what it calls “3G Multimedia” phones — basically a marketing term for a souped-up feature phone. Nokia’s X3 handsets are another example.

That brings us to Facebook. Everything comes back to Facebook these days. Who accesses the site the most? Kids in middle school and high school who usually can’t afford smartphones. That’s why the social networking giant has worked so hard recently to reach feature phone users, acquiring app maker Snaptu in March and working closely with independent app store GetJar, a common presence on feature phones.

With such a wide audience hungry for smartphone features, why aren’t these midlevel phones drowning in apps?

For developers, they have proved a double-edged sword. They’re eager to serve such a broad market but also wary partly because they would have to write scalable apps: Programs that would rich enough to reach the lucrative smartphone market but could also be scaled back for handsets with less processing power and fewer high-end features.

“Now they need to rework the app for a new platform, and it might not always be a good business decision. Feature phone users might be a little more price-sensitive,” Spektor noted.

The lack of “oomph” on feature phones has also placed limit on the types of software they can access. Mobile health apps are out, as are more complex games. And forget about using them to access speedy 4G networks. “Gaming developers are trying to get more capability on feature phones, but it’s an inherent challenge,” says Josh Martin, a Strategy Analytics senior analyst who focuses on software.

Embedding apps on feature phones is not a new strategy. Back in 2009, Verizon Wireless teamed with Qualcomm’s Brew platform to develop them; in 2010, LG gave them space on its new market.

But as technology inevitably gets cheaper and “smarter” feature phones extend around the globe, content providers are likely to follow Facebook’s example in reaching out to their users in greater numbers.

In the end, the old handset did its job (sort of) with my daughter. Wanting more, she saved up and upgraded — to an iPod touch. Not exactly what the carriers had in mind.