The Blurring Line Between “Smart” Phones and “Feature” Phones

Gear Diary LG Voyager

My fiancée is on Verizon, and I use AT&T. It’s becoming clear that we really should just bite the bullet and move to a family plan on one of these carriers, as the combined savings would ease the pain of an early termination fee, plus we wouldn’t waste minutes calling each other from the grocery store. (This could also be solved by me simply writing down in more detail what we need before I leave, but that’s too easy.)

Unfortunately for me, she’s very pleased with Verizon and is reluctant to leave. I tried enticing her by offering to purchase her an iPhone, and she flat out refused, saying “What do I need an iPhone for?” I pointed out she pays for a data plan for her LG Voyager to check her email and browse facebook, and the experience would be better on an iPhone. But she didn’t see it the same way.

For her, using the mobile web versions of her favorite websites, like Facebook and Gmail, worked perfectly. I asked her to show me how fast she could access her mail, and she did it in 3 clicks. One click to access the menu for the web browser, one to open the web browser itself, and one to click on the Gmail link on her browser’s homepage.

I pointed out she could get her Gmail in one click with a smartphone, and she told me she didn’t want to buzz all day like I do. We went back and forth, but it became clear that for her, a “feature phone” offered more than a smartphone did, even though she basically uses it as a pseudo-smartphone. She keeps her calendar on it, she answers emails, posts on Facebook, and browses the web. Her main point against smartphones was that any smartphone that offered her anything similar to the form factor she liked about her Voyager would be bulkier and more complex. And she really hates the idea of push email.

It got me thinking about the line between smartphones and “feature phones”. That line is getting significantly blurrier. We now have plain old phones sporting HTML browsers, email clients, 3+ megapixel cameras, touchscreens and other fancy features. What makes a smartphone different? The distinct operating system? The power user options?

When the iPhone first came out, the lack of 3rd party apps had many detractors yelling that it was a feature phone, not a smartphone. Now, there are few who would argue it is not a smartphone, but the idea of a very high-end featurephone seemed to have been spawned from that first iPhone’s success.

With Verizon looking to start its own app store, and the range of options being offered on Sony Walkman phones, Nokia phones, and especially LG and Samsung phones, how many us “need” a smartphone, and how much of what we do all day could be accomplished on a plain phone?

I am curious if any of our readers out there have a similar attitude to my fiancée; do you look at people toting blackberries, windows mobile phones and iPhones and think “I can do 90% of that on my lowly ____?”

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

7 Comments on "The Blurring Line Between “Smart” Phones and “Feature” Phones"

  1. I think you have a really good point. My ex is a dedicated Verizon env user. She swears by it because she doesn’t have to add an expensive data plan.

    Looking around while on vacation most of the teens had these relatively inexpensive QWERTY devices which aren’t full featured smartphones but offer a good keyboard for texting.

  2. Exactly. And if they can update facebook and check their mail a few times a day, they’re probably doing 85% of what many smartphones are used for!

    Also, and I forgot to mention this in the article, Verizon at least is encouraging this type of behavior; their “Connect” family plans include unlimited mobile web on non-smartphones. At least the chatbot I talked to on their website told me that. Right before it asked me if I “really needed a smartphone.”

  3. I gave my older son my Samsung u740 (now called Alias), which I had to give up after a few months of use because of my company’s no camera policy. It is a classic ‘feature phone’ with a great keyboard and loaded with all the Verizon web and stuff. All he uses it for is texting in addition to usual phone stuff, but I really don’t see much of a greater need. If he did need more we could easily expand to add email and so on.

    Personally I found Verizon’s web and email stuff … well, terrible. It was slow and limited, but better than nothing. Given the choice I’d take a smartphone in a second!

    But for most folks there is little need for all that functionality.

  4. Joel McLaughlin | September 9, 2009 at 9:09 am |

    Here’s one thing to put on the smartphone side….apps. With VZW feature phones, you PAY for the apps that on Smartphones are free. Like Weather Apps, twitter clients, Stock tracking apps and more are all FREE on smartphones and anywhere from 3 to 5 dollars per app per MONTH on a feature phone. For me, it’s no contest….smartphone all the way.

    In the end, you will probably spend LESS per month on a smartphone than a feature phone. That is even with the Smartphone’s data plan. Plus in alot of instances, you won’t have to pay for apps again on a smartphone. On a featurephone, there is usually NO WAY to sync apps between a old phone and a new one. If you stick with your smartphone platform of choice, you just copy the apps over or install them again and it’s good to go.

  5. stevenshytle | September 9, 2009 at 9:33 am |

    Could it be that what we are seeing on phones (dumb, feature, and smart) is but a smaller portion of what is coming in terms of desktop vs cloud computing. The hardware and os has evolved but so has what they are trying to reach. The web, data, and services has changed in such a way that you do not need a full computer but a dumb terminal. Likewise for the phones.

  6. “In the end, you will probably spend LESS per month on a smartphone than a feature phone.”

    Which is, I think, part of why carriers like Verizon are pushing the feature phones–they want their cut of that extra money. Of course, all of this is way over the heads of many users, who think a smartphone is “just too complicated for me”–at least, until the office provides a BlackBerry and they have to get up to speed.

  7. Thomas R. Hall | September 13, 2009 at 9:25 pm |

    Very good point, Carly! I actually have an increasing number of friends and family using a BlackBerry Pearl or Curve as a “feature phone” (no data plan). They like the ability to text quickly with the keyboard, the multitasking, and the ability to install some apps which don’t require Internet connectivity. Having the ability to install some apps such as a password manager but not having a data plan give them just a slight advantage over feature phones.

    Then, I can always convince them to get a data plan later. 🙂

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