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Feature phones still on innovation lists

Read time 3min 20sec
Despite the fact that feature phones are fast dying out, innovation around the "old-school" devices continues.
Despite the fact that feature phones are fast dying out, innovation around the "old-school" devices continues.

While the excitement around smartphones has only grown in ferocity since the gadgets started becoming mainstream six years ago, feature phones have not been forgotten, with investment and innovation around these moribund devices still ongoing.

This is despite predictions by some local analysts that feature phones may become obsolete in as little as five years, and a general consensus that they are on their way out, with smartphone prices falling continually.

Online and mobile strategy company Deloitte Digital recently introduced a leave application service for SAP Fiori, which allows workers using any cellphone to book leave from their devices.

According to the company, feature phones still dominate the South African mobile landscape, with more than 22 million phones in a market of about 35.4 million phones. Some 2.2 million phones have no data capability at all, it says.

Left out

Deloitte Digital questions whether, with all the innovation taking place globally around Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms, there is a "huge portion of South African mobile users" not being catered for.

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says innovation around feature phones has been continuing for the last few years, because of the high penetration, "but we will begin seeing a tapering off of investment in this area as the mass market accelerates its migration to smartphones".

Last month, MTN partnered with Twitter to bring the popular micro-blogging service to feature phone users, while classified ad giant Gumtree in November tailored its services for feature phones - also built by Deloitte Digital.

Facebook, too, has made sure it does not abandon the feature phone market - particularly across Africa - and has invested considerably in Internet.org, a project that aims to bring free Internet to smartphone and feature phone users.

Smartphone stats

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck last year noted there were about 16.3 million smartphones in use in SA at the end of 2013. While this was originally forecast to grow to about 18.1 million by the end of 2014, growth acceleration suggested it could beat the 20 million mark ? a penetration increase from 30% to 40% in a year.

BMI-TechKnowledge director Brian Neilson puts the number of active smartphones in SA at around 23 million as at year-end 2014 - a figure that is up 23% on the December 2013 figure of 19 million. "That means nearly 30% of all active SIMs in the market are in smartphones."

BMI-TechKnowledge director Brian Neilson points out Mxit - which has its roots in the feature phone world - has maintained that distinction as part of its raison d'^etre. "[Mxit has] innovated in a number of directions, application/content-wise."

ICT expert Adrian Schofield says, globally, the percentage of smart to feature phones seems to be around 30% to 70%, "which means it is extremely profitable to develop apps for the feature phone market".

Niche need

Analysts point out, despite the looming discontinuation of feature phones, there is still value - and a viable need - in developing for them, even if it is to a vastly diminished degree.

Even by 2020, says Goldstuck, feature phones will continue to have a role but will be niche devices by then, much as dial-up Internet access still exists but only in limited niches.

Neilson says, while the greatest weight of activity is towards smartphones, there are still applications that need to be made universally available. He cites mobile banking/payments as an example.

In October last year, Facebook partnered with BabyCentre, MAMA and Praekelt Foundation to provide vital health information to mothers in Tanzania. There has also recently been a significant focus in SA around mobile health services for those in rural areas, the majority of which still use feature phones.

"Five years of revenue could make [developing for feature phones] worthwhile. Obsolete does not mean they will not continue to be of value to their users," says Schofield.

"South Africans have proved their ability to find innovative ways of using mobile phones, right from the days when they started to use airtime as currency. Mxit was a good example of creating added value on the feature phone platform."

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