Smartphone versus feature phone – can you tell the difference anymore?

In the past, if someone asked what the major differences were between smartphones and feature phones, the answer would have been simple. Different in both specification and market segment, the devices couldn’t have been further apart. Today however, the answer is not so straight forward. Following a surge in market competition in recent years, coupled with more companies investing in mobile products, the boundaries between where feature phones stop and smartphones begin has become increasingly blurred.

Flashback to 1996, Nokia, now named Microsoft Mobile, launched a phone years ahead of its time. The Nokia 9000 Communicator had eight megabytes of memory and a 33-Hertz processor and even ran on its own GEOS operating system. It had all the features of a computer in a phone, allowing users to access email, web browsing, fax, word processing and spreadsheets, making it by definition, one of the first smartphones to hit the market.

Fast forward about two decades later, another Nokia phone, the Asha 230 is released, fully equipped with touchscreen, built-in camera and apps such as Facebook, Whatsapp and LINE. It even allows users to access the web via a pre-installed browser app. Asher 230 has most of the features and functions that you would expect from a smartphone, yet is classified as a feature phone, albeit a high-end one.

Today it’s arguable that the only clear difference between smartphones and feature phones lies in smartphones’ operating systems, which allow for advanced computing abilities, including the ability to run third-party applications. Apart from the costs of the phone, you’d find surprisingly little difference between either device. Smartphones typically boast intuitive touch controls, HD video capabilities and high quality cameras. Modern feature phones, by comparison, are now starting to offer comparable functionality, albeit at a slightly more basic level, with most providing touchscreen technology, camera and video capabilities and pre-installed apps.


The Asia-Pacific market

Despite the increasing popularity of smartphones in the region, recent statistics show that Asia Pacific still has a strong feature phone market. In 2013, a study from data analyst firm, International Data Corporation (IDC), estimated that the smartphone sales accounted for 53% of total mobile phone sales at 119 million units, while feature phones saw 47% of total mobile phone sales at 106 million units.

Other figures show that in Indonesia, about 190 million people are using feature phones while the smartphone penetration rate in Singapore is the highest within the region, at 71.7%. What is notably similar in both countries however, is how people actually use their phones.

Social media applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and instant-messaging services like WeChat, Line and Whatsapp are top of today’s priority list for consumers when it comes to mobile. On a browser, we search for information, compare prices and shop. These are just some of the activities common to users of both smartphones and feature phones. The truth of the matter is, as the differences between smartphones and feature phones become less defined, the way that phones are used by consumers across the region and the world is becoming increasingly similar.


Impact for marketers

Today, we still find many marketers formulating strategies to target either ‘smartphone’ or ‘feature’ phone users, which are treated as very different audiences in the marketing mix. However, as the definition between the two continues to fade, marketing strategies need to be adapted in order to stay ahead of the curve.

So what does this mean for marketers? In short, it provides an excellent opportunity. As consumer behaviours continue to become more similar, what had previously been considered as two very separate audiences begins to merge, allowing marketers to consolidate their mobile campaigns, and move away from separate approaches to target feature phone or smartphone users, instead concentrating efforts to target a much larger ‘mobile audience’.

To conclude, as advancements in mobile technology continue to change how phones function, the way that consumers are using phones is becoming increasingly generic. What used to be multiple audiences is now merging into a ‘single mobile audience’, which can only be a good thing for the industry.

This trend could see a number of positive benefits for the industry, seeing marketers rethinking mobile strategies to communicate with their target audience via a single campaign, with a potential to increase efficiency, productivity and consistency. Greater cost efficiency could also be a positive side-effect of this trend, with less need for marketers to rely on multiple approaches and campaigns to reach the right audience at the right time in the right place.


Rohit Dadwal
BY Rohit Dadwal ON 15 May 2014
Managing Director, Mobile Marketing Association Asia Pacific Limited