Why 'Dumb' Feature Phones Could Make a Comeback Around the World

NEWS ANALYSIS: To some mobile phone buyers "smart" means large, expensive, insecure, complex and redundant. So they are dumbing down their phone purchases.

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Japan has long been a global leader in mobile phone trends. That's why the most recent mobile sales numbers coming out of Japan are a shock.

For the past two years, smartphone sales have declined. Some 5.3 percent fewer smartphones sold in 2014 than in 2013.

Meanwhile, shipments of dumb "flip-phones" rose by 5.7 percent last year over the year before. Dumb phones—also called "feature phones"—are now eating away at smartphone sales in Japan.

No, I don't think dumb phones will or should replace smartphones. But I do think Japan is ahead of the curve.

I've come to believe that the smartphone will lose its position as the center of mobility for everyone in rich countries. As smartphones become more of a commodity and prices drop while features become ubiquitous across all lines, the necessity of smartphones will drop among some users, as the social stigma around dumb phones evaporates.

Things will get much more complex, and dumb phones will have a bigger role to play in this new world. Different minorities of users will choose dumb phones over smartphones for different reasons. These reasons include:

High and exploitative data fees

For the same reason that significant minorities of PC users replaced some or all of their PC or laptop use with tablets once that form factor came along, many users will realize that they're wasting money on the high cost of mobile data and can do everything they currently do with a dumb phone.


As with tablets in comparison with PCs, dumb phones can be simpler to use. With a flip phone, s opening the phone answers the call and closing it hangs up. It's slightly simpler than phone calls on a smartphone and a little more gratifying—especially the act of hanging up on somebody.


Polls asking phone buyers what's most important usually rank battery life as the number one feature they're looking for in a phone. In the smartphone world that means lasting more than a day is good, while less than a day is bad.

Meanwhile, phones like Microsoft's recently announced $29 Nokia 215 feature phone boasts 29 days of battery life.

Small size

Smartphones are getting bigger, thanks to the Android-driven "phablet" market, followed by the popularity of Apple's iPhone 6 Plus.

Some users will increasingly find themselves in situations where they just can't carry a phablet, or even a smallish smartphone. Women out for a night on the town, without pockets or a big purse, for example, still need to make and receive phone calls and text their friends. A tiny dumb phone is just the thing. Many users will choose either a second tiny dumb phone, or replace their giant smartphone.

Security and privacy

Because smartphones are packed with sensors that are connected to the Internet all the time and run multiple apps, they're becoming increasingly insecure.

Experts warn users to constantly run anti-malware programs, but few do.

The fact is that many smartphone users feel that protecting themselves from the many ways they can be violated through their smartphones is beyond their ability.

Users read stories here and there that overwhelm them. For example, most educated smartphone users know that mobile apps often harvest all kinds of personal data. They might read something about Alohar Mobile inventing a system for identifying users based on how they walk.

The sensor-packed smartphone in their pockets can detect specific patterns of jostling that are as unique as fingerprints. Or maybe they've heard about the rise in ransomware on smartphones, where the phone locks up until a ransom is paid.