Smartphones vs Feature Phones: What’s the Difference?

Sat, 02/28/2009 - 5:59pm
Luke Simpson

Smart VS Feature

It's been 15 years since IBM released the Simon, the world's first smartphone, to the public. Smartphones have since evolved into bona fide pocket computers with lots of processing power and slick user interfaces. And they're not just for business users anymore, with recreational users flocking to Apple's iPhone and Nokia's recent Nseries releases.

With these shifts in the smartphone market, the terminology used to classify these phones is becoming insufficient, and possibly inaccurate. There is certainly debate about whether the iPhone is a smartphone or glorified iPod with a built-in phone.

A similar shift is occurring in the feature phone category as the traditionally low-end phones are beefed up to appeal to consumers who want more than voice and text functionality in their handsets. There appears to be a new battleground forming, where feature phones and smartphones are competing for the same customers.

The definition of a smartphone is changing. Early models like the Simon were sold as phones with built-in PDA and modem functionality. Even now, Sprint's Web site segregates "PDA/Smartphone" handsets. But industry analysts says it's the smartphone's operating system (OS), allowing users to run third-party applications, that sets it apart.

Analyst Neil Strother of Forrester Research sees the ability to access the Web and download apps, a large storage capacity and a qwerty keyboard as other features common to a lot of smartphones.

And it is exactly these features that are becoming more common in the feature phone market. The LG Voyager and Motorola Krave have Web and e-mail access, touch screens with qwerty keyboards (the Krave's is virtual) and microSD card slots capable of storing 8 GB.

According to John Jackson, vice president of research at CCS Insight, there may be a proliferation of these types of feature phones. "Smartphones are generally more expensive and in today's economy, when people have smaller budgets, they will look for a phone that walks like a smartphone and talks like a smartphone, but has a lower price tag."

In fact, Jackson believes that the term smartphone is already redundant. "Do you really care [if you are buying a smartphone]? As long as you can update your Facebook status." So what naming conventions will be used? "There may be an entirely different lexicon. Product names could reflect the utility that it supports." Anyone for a Facebook phone?

Ira Frimere, Nseries project manager at Nokia, puts an emphasis on the need for smartphone features to be integrated with services. Nokia's mechanism for this service is, which allows users to share photos, buy music, view maps and back up contacts directly from their phone. "There will always be a market for voice-only, text-only or even Web-only phones, but we think that the convergence of features with services is popular with our customers, so we're moving in that direction."

Frank Bernhard
Bernhard: Freedom is important.

The price of a smartphone used to clearly differentiate it from a feature phone, but that is changing too. For example, the Nokia N73 smartphone, listed as $242 on Nokia's Web site, runs the Symbian OS and supports Web and e-mail access, but does not have a touch screen or qwerty keyboard. The feature-packed Motorola Krave feature phone will cost you $328 through Motorola's Web site.

For consumers, it appears that features such as the touchscreen interface are more in demand than the OS. Since the iPhone was released, almost every major phone manufacturer is offering a touch-screen model, many of which are not smartphones.

Sony Ericsson currently produces a number of touch-screen phones, but unlike some other manufacturers, it is working to support a suite of operating systems on its handsets. Jon Mulder, head of Product Marketing at Sony Ericsson North America, sees this as the future for their smartphones. "As more open platforms are being introduced, we are working to support these relationships in order to align our platforms. Our recent membership with the Open Handset Alliance allows us to expand our relationships with the Symbian Foundation and Android as well as support their continued growth."

Mulder is well aware of the crossover of features and uses his own term when differentiating the high-end feature phone from the smartphone. "When creating a feature-rich phone versus a smartphone, our feature-focused phones are developed with a specific type of capability or purpose. As for smartphones, they include a broader range of features without heavily focusing on a specific purpose such as music or imaging."

Phillip Redman
Smartphone market is still small.

Those that do purchase a smartphone are rewarded with a huge choice of applications that can be added or deleted to create a customized set of apps. This freedom is important to smartphone users. "People don't want to feel trapped," says Frank Bernhard, managing principal and research director of OMNI Consulting Group. "The phone is becoming an application-driven utility… the mobile ecosystem is starting to develop," Bernhard adds, referring to the content producers, application aggregators and handset makers that are helping to redefine how mobile phones are used.

So will smartphones become the norm? Phillip Redman, vice president of Network Services and Infrastructure at Gartner, believes that is still a little ways off. "The smartphone market is still relatively small, especially in developing countries. As a result, smartphones will continue to be classified separately."

In fact, Gartner uses four phone categories in its reporting: basic phone, enhanced phone, entry-level smartphone and - wait for it - feature smartphone.

Strother also sees a fragmented smartphone market forming. "As smartphones evolve into specialized subsets such as navigation/GPS or entertainment, consumers will not be asking ‘Is it a smartphone?,' but ‘Is it smart in the way that I want it to be smart?'"

The burden is now on consumers to pick and choose the features that will make their phone a smartphone.


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