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Rule of dumb: the fall and rise of the dumbphone

Dumbphone Space Odyssey

Dumbphones – handsets light on extra features – are increasing in popularity. What’s driving consumers back into the arms of these devices? And how are newer basic models un-dumbing themselves and getting with the times?

In ever more digitalised times, some technologies once branded obsolete by flashy new tech and online services are having a second chance at popularity. Just as the comeback of vinyl records and Polaroid cameras in recent years has proven, reports of their deaths are greatly exaggerated.

Another such artefact making a return is the dumbphone, as reported by the BBC. More tactfully known as feature phones, dumbphones shirk the features of more modern handsets in favour of the most basic functions, not unlike those first devices that many of us would have used in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Gone are the apps, connectivity features and enormous, fragile touchscreens; these devices can typically only make calls and send SMS messages, while more high-end models may feature a basic web browser or camera.

Of course, these phones didn’t used to be called “dumb” phones – they were once considered very clever, in fact, so claiming this is their great comeback is something of a misnomer. However, their key selling point being their distinct lack of features seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which has seen adding features to modern handsets become a veritable arms race.

But, as pointed out in the BBC article, with users now saturated with screen time and app alerts, a dumbphone may be a remedy to phone overload without having to totally disconnect from your friends, loved ones, and the rest of modern society.

In fact, dumbphones may be the smart option for many users and manufacturers, being typically priced much lower than their more feature-laden brethren. These devices’ low cost and scant memory also means that losing one isn’t as much of a disaster.

Frequent travellers may opt for a dumbphone to avoid roaming fees, with some operators offering prepaid plans with a SIM card and a basic mobile phone in one package.

For less financially able users, simple models will come without the expensive data bill, while older users may prefer simpler devices for a myriad of reasons. Their low-intensity hardware also ensures that power demands are much lower, with battery life measured in days rather than hours.

In the developing world, feature phones remain the device of choice for many customers, since there often isn’t much of a 4G network, let alone 5G, to take advantage of – all it takes to permit banking and remittance payments via mobile money is a feature phone with Internet connectivity.

The iconic, much-loved Nokia 3310 is remembered for its durability as much as its ubiquity, even though its most advanced feature was its internal antenna – or possibly Snake II. A revamped model was released in 2017, adding a 2-megapixel camera and LCD screen, which sold out almost immediately.

Other major handset providers, such as Samsung and Jio, also continue to produce feature phones, while a new breed of device is looking to bridge the gap between smart and dumb phones; the Punkt MPO1Mudita Pure and the Light Phone are just some of the devices walking this tightrope, introducing features such as electronic paper screens, podcast players, hotspot tethering and Bluetooth functionality to the usual feature phone formula.

Sales of these devices, while not a threat to the dominance of smartphones, nonetheless still represents a not-insignificant portion of the total handset market worldwide, their relatively lower costs ensuring sales remain stable as many tighten their belts and neglect splashing out on the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy:

According to a recent Deloitte survey, 39% of UK respondents believe that they use their phones too much – no wonder then that some of us are looking for simpler mobile phones.

From turning the phone screen to greyscale to flushing all non-essential apps, more of us are looking for ways to disengage from our devices and focus on other things without the constant bombardment of breaking news notifications or emergency alerts.

Is dumping the smartphone a step too far? Though dumbphones are free from the fluff of social media apps and Wordle, they lack useful features like encrypted OTT messaging and maps. And those hoping that feature phones are more secure might be mistaken, according to analysts at Kaspersky.

Connected life now is much different from the heyday of the feature phone, but so are the latest generation of simple devices, and changes to one may further drive the other. Despite the shift towards smartphones, telcos must avoid neglecting this feature phone market, or shutting them off from new services as older networks are getting wound down in some regions.
Whether its dumbphones, smartphones, or other devices, Cerillion’s Enterprise Product Catalogue offers a unified platform for managing all products, services and packages from a single application.

About the author

Adam Hughes


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