Why Feature Phones Are the New Black For Mobile Apps

Mobile data right now is all about the applications, and the applications are all about smartphones. User-friendly, high-tech devices like Apple’s iPhone, Motorola’s Droid and Google’s flagship Nexus One are on the bleeding edge of mobile handsets, combining consumer-friendly user interfaces with pure technological muscle and app stores that offer tens of thousands of compelling offerings. Those gotta-have devices are behind the mobile-app craze that’s helping to drive mobile data traffic that’s beginning to outpace voice around the world.

But that’s about to change.

Feature phones – you know, those passé, non-OS handsets that account for a whopping 83 percent of the overall U.S. handset market – are set to join their higher-end counterparts as viable vehicles for mobile applications. Carriers who’ve watched the app space explode are finally making moves to make mobile data easier to consume for their customers with mid- and low-end phones. Operators are bringing better technology to the table for non-smartphone users and giving them app-buying options beyond their horrific (and usurious) carrier decks.

In just the last few weeks, for instance:

  • GetJar, a European vendor that has gained substantial traction distributing free apps to a wide range of handsets, inked a deal to bring its massive catalog to customers of the Canadian operator Rogers. The news comes on the heels of a similar pact between GetJar and Sprint.
  • AT&T introduced online services that are aimed at bringing smartphone-like functionality to features phones. Users with handsets such as the Samsung Strive – which sells for a mere $20 after the typical rebates – will have access to web-based contact and messaging offerings and will be able to transfer photos and videos to PCs and share the content via social networks.
  • Qualcomm said it will integrate both Opera Mini 5 and Opera Mobile 10 into the Brew mobile platform. The deal will give Brew users a vastly improved browsing experience, and it underscores the remarkable traction Qualcomm’s venerable platform has gained in recent months. AT&T recently committed to using Brew for all non-smartphones, joining longtime Brew partners Verizon Wireless, Sprint and U.S. Cellular.

While it’s too early to say exactly how these moves will impact the industry, the potential here is huge. Aside from the ringtone phenomenon, mobile data has long failed to gain traction among feature phone users. Carrier-branded stores like Verizon’s Get It Now! are difficult to navigate and teem with overpriced apps of dubious quality. (A quick stroll on Verizon’s deck, for instance, reveals a host of games available for about $4 a month or a one-time fee of $8. Those prices are outrageous considering an iPhone user can get a vastly superior experience for less than half the price.) And while off-deck has long been an option for more tech-savvy users, inferior browsers make shopping at non-carrier outlets a questionable proposition.

Many of the recent developments underscore how apps are coming to feature phones in North America, but the opportunities in emerging markets are even greater. A recent report from analyst Chetan Sharma (and commissioned by GetJar) indicates that while Asia was the top worldwide market for overall download share of mobile apps in 2009, North American users accounted for more than 50 percent of total worldwide mobile app revenues. That will change over the next several years, though, as the region comprising the Middle East and Africa overtakes North America to become the world’s largest market for mobile app revenues by 2012.

Of course, Apple and Google (among others) deserve much more of the credit for the current app craze than carriers do. Network operators have historically displayed an abundance of greed and a staggering lack of vision when it comes to mobile applications, which is why carrier-branded offerings have stagnated while the wave of new app stores takes flight. But the operators are certainly showing a renewed interest in bringing more advanced offerings to the feature phone users that represent the overwhelming majority of their subscribers. And that’s good news not just for consumers but for all the players who are part of the booming mobile app ecosystem.

Question of the week

Are feature phones the next big thing for mobile applications?
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Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Mobile Curator Gigaom Network

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4 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. Yes, definitely because they target emerging markets (India, CHina, Brasil, Rusia, Africa…) where growth is still a reality (no growth, no opportunities).

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