August 14, 2013

What is a Feature Phone, a Basic Cellphone and a High-End Smartphone?

This LG full QWERTY device is one of many Feature Phone's sold through Verizon Wireless.

A feature phone is a mobile phone which is priced at the mid-range in a wireless provider's hardware lineup. It is intended for customers who want a moderately priced and multipurpose phone without the expense of a high-end smartphone. A feature phone has additional functions over and above a basic mobile phone which is only capable of voice calling and text messaging. Due to the quick progression in capabilities, current mid-range devices in a carrier's lineup today may be more advanced than previous high-end devices just a few years ago.

Difference Between a Smartphone and a Feature Phone.

While a feature phone is a low-end device and smartphone a high-end one, there is no standard way of distinguishing them. Smartphone and feature phone are not mutually exclusive categories. A complication in distinguishing between smartphones and feature phones is that over time the capabilities of new models of feature phones can increase to exceed those of phones that had been promoted as smartphones in the past. Because technology changes rapidly, what was a smartphone ten years ago may be considered only a feature phone today. For example, today's feature phones typically also serve as a personal digital assistant (PDA) and portable media player and have capabilities such as cameras, touchscreen, GPS navigation, Wi-Fi, and mobile broadband access.

Back in 2009, a significant difference between smartphones and feature phones is that the advanced application programming interfaces (APIs) on smartphones for running third-party applications can allow those applications to have better integration with the phone's OS and hardware than is typical with feature phones. In comparison, feature phones more commonly run on proprietary firmware, with third-party software support through platforms such as Java ME or BREW.

The most popular Basic Cellphone manufacturer is Nokia. Pictured is the Nokia 1661 for sale at T-Mobile.

It should be noted, though, that many of these proprietary software platforms, such as S60 (Nokia, Samsung and LG), UIQ (Sony Ericsson and Motorola) and MOAP(S) (Japanese only such as Fujitsu, Sharp etc.), which were based on Symbian, were gradually phased out in 2009-11. During that period the manufacturers shifted their lineups, usually the high-end handsets first then followed by the mid-range and low-end offerings, to advanced APIs such as Android and Windows Phone. 

As of 2010-present, while advanced APIs appear on smartphones first, they are gradually moving to feature phones; for instance as of 2012 smartphones (especially flagship phones) are often the first to run the latest OS version (i.e. the HTC One X which ships with Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, while the midrange HTC Desire C has Android 2.3 Gingerbread). Often OS is no longer a distinguishing factor, such as the Nokia Lumia 900 smartphone and Lumia 710 feature phone, both of which run Windows Phone 7.5, however the Lumia 900 has among other things a better camera and a larger screen. 

Another example is the HTC One X and HTC One S, the flagship and upper-middle offerings of HTC's One series lineup, and the HTC One V; all three ship with Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, however the One X and One S have dual-core processors which allows them to run future Android updates whereas the One V is a single-core which will be unlikely to enjoy an OS update. The only advanced smartphone OS that has never appeared on a feature phone so far is Apple iOS, as all of the company's handset releases using iOS (the iPhone) have always commanded smartphone (premium) pricing, and as Apple has not licensed iOS out to other handset manufacturers.

The most popular High-End Smartphone, the Apple iPhone5.

The price difference between a smartphone and feature phone remains one of the widely used attributes to distinguish the two devices. As of March 2012, the big three Canadian cellular service providers (Rogers, Bell, Telus) offer the choice of purchasing smartphone upfront for $450–650 CAD on "no term" (month-by-month), or by signing 3-year voice and data contract to waive most of the handset purchase cost (there are no waivers for a voice-only plan). The no term price for a feature phone, by contrast, is typically half or even less than that of a smartphone (topping out at $300 CAD), and this cost can be waived with a 3-year voice-only plan. Below feature phones are basic mobile phones or "dumb phones" which are intended for pay-as-you-go customers and often retail for $0. Smartphones, while improving their features and capabilities, however, have always maintained their price advantage over feature phones.

Pricing structure is still a grey area, for instance at Rogers Wireless, the Sony Xperia ion was originally released with smartphone pricing in June 2012, however poor sales led to that device being demoted to feature phone pricing by December 2012 of that year. By contrast, the iPhone 4 8 GB which debuted in mid-2010 is still sold as a smartphone by Rogers as of December 2012 (which reflects Apple's success in keeping the price of its phones constant).

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