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.
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.
Why ‘Dumb’ Feature Phones Could Make a Comeback Around the World
There’s an overarching sense that smartphones enable unknown companies, governments and criminals to invade privacy at will and there’s really nothing anybody can do about it. Except get rid of the smartphone.
Just as the public followed the drug dealers on the use of first, pagers then later, smartphones, so they might follow them into the use of dumb phones.
Last month a rash of stories revealed that the phone of choice for drug dealers is becoming the Nokia 8210, which is a reliable dumb phone that first shipped in 1999.
Or maybe they’ll be inspired by the character Saul Goodman in the TV series “Better Call Saul,” who maintains a drawer full of burner phones, one for each client, as a way to break the chain of social connections revealed through meta-data harvesting.
As the security problem grows, medium-sized companies and enterprises will return to the old idea of locked-down, company- issued smartphones as the only way to protect themselves from data theft, ransomware, phishing attacks and industrial espionage.
If the company has already given you a smartphone, a dumb phone might make more sense as a personal phone.
There’s a retro, ironic hipness factor
With the ever-increasing banality of high-quality, high-end smartphones, the lure of retro phones will inevitably call to the hipsters among us, just as vinyl records have.
Trend-setter celebrities in multiple areas of public life have been spotted recently with dumb flip-phones, including Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour; pop singer Rihanna; actress Scarlett Johansson; actress Kate Beckinsale; actor Robert Pattinson; New York Senator Chuck Schumer, and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
People want to take their phones to the beach or sailing, or while running marathons or on safaris or while traveling all over the world. I personally have done all these and sometimes lost, broke or had my smartphones stolen while doing so.
While rugged smartphones exist, they tend to be much more expensive than the average smartphone, while rugged feature phones cost much less. Plus, a flip phone is far less likely than a fancy rugged smartphone to attract the interest of a thief in a dangerous part of the world.
One prime example is the Kyocera DuraXV, which is certified to meet Military Standard 810G and IP68 to resist dust, shock, extreme temperatures, water and more. It also has large, physical buttons designed to be used while wearing gloves such as for skiing or mountain climbing.
Another reason is that other devices replace some of the smartphone’s capabilities—small tablets, for example. While some users are coping with the similarity in size between big phones and small tablets by buying the biggest phone and getting rid of the tablet, others will go the other way—buy the tablet and buy the smallest dumb phone.
Another coming trend is the rise in either dumb phone or smartphone functionality in wearable devices. One such device is called the Neptune Duo, which houses extreme smartphone-like electronics in a wristwatch, enabling the phone to be dumb.
I’m not saying the Neptune Duo will succeed. But I am saying that the market will become more complex, with multiple options for smart devices and dumb phones that don’t exist today.
For all these reasons, I believe the dumb phone will soon mount a come-back, and become one of the many options users have for making that calculation about their phones and how it fits into their overall lifestyle and gadget lineup.