Wireless Systems Design

Feature Phones Will Continue To Dominate Smart Phones

Smart phones are certainly equipped with personal-computer-type bells and whistles. But do consumers really want such complicated devices? The answer to that question seems to be "no." What consumers really want is phones that do one or a few chosen things very well. In addition, they want those phones at low cost and with little or no impact on battery life.

It's simple, really. Do you want a handset that takes great still-image pictures and video recordings with a long battery life? Or would you rather have a handset that takes adequate pictures, but kills your battery within a few minutes while you work on a tiny corner of a spreadsheet? Within these two questions lies the baseline difference between feature phones and smart phones. For this implicit reason, feature phones win the popular vote.

Feature phones that emphasize specifics, such as still imaging or gaming, will continue to dominate the largest portion of the handset market. Meanwhile, smart phones-the PDA-style, PC-on-a-phone type of handset-will be relegated to the small, expensive portion of the market. Feature phones dominate because they are:

  • Much more affordable
  • Meet the needs of the customer
  • Support the current carrier business model
  • Use adaptable, low-cost architectures

Of course, price also makes a difference. High-end smart phones typically cost around $800. They have yet to substantially drop in price.

Because of the open software environment that's typically utilized by smart phones, consumers also cover the cost of related licensing. These phones are simply out of reach for the majority of consumers-hence the very low penetration rate (approximately 2%) in the overall handset market. Feature phones, on the other hand, don't come with the expensive hardware and software requirements that plague smart phones. Consumers also are attracted to these phones because they do one or a few chosen things well at a manageable price point.

Aside from resulting in increased field-trial costs, the expensive hardware architecture in smart phones taps battery life. Using an open operating system (OS) and a wide variety of application software, smart phones do the work of a personal computer. As a result, they use more power than is necessary to achieve the few features that consumers want and need.

Smart phones must therefore rely on a high-speed and consequently high-power-draining application processor. These processors require large amounts of external system memory (128 MB of DRAM). This memory, which is another drain on power, is used to store and run the open OS, libraries, and software programs that are found on these devices.

Also, keep in mind that smart phones involve many contributors. The profits for the services have to be shared across the board-particularly with the vendor of the open OS, such as Symbian or Microsoft. As these profits are spread around, consumers pay the difference.

In contrast, revenue-generating services like Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) and Video on Demand (VoD) can increase the average revenue per user for feature phones. The cost burden of verifying, validating, and supporting third-party services does not concern the feature-phone consumer.

Despite their differences, however, these two types of handsets do have things in common. For example, both feature and smart phones can benefit from using a programmable multimedia processor instead of an application processor. The programmable multimedia processor will offer a low-power, versatile, and inexpensive solution to processing images, video, and audio media.

Today, the application architectural model in smart phones is flawed. To meet growing processing demands from consumers, that model relies heavily on higher-frequency, more expensive, more power-hungry and memory-hungry processors. Designing these constantly larger and more complex architectures will keep handset prices too high for the average consumer. To make feature-rich phones more accessible, the industry is supposed to be lowering handset prices.

In summary, feature phones give consumers what they want when they want it. By using a programmable multimedia processing architecture, feature phones minimize the impact on battery life. They also protect quality output. Plus, price does make a difference. Feature phones are affordable to the consumer. They even help the handset market grow by providing revenue to operators. In this scenario, everyone wins (well, maybe not smart phones). Next time you take your cell phone with you somewhere, ask yourself: Do I want to take high-quality still pictures or a video of where I am going? Or do I just want to be able to view a small corner of a spreadsheet?

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