Feature Phones: The Next Market for Mobile Apps

Qualcomm last week unveiled Brew Mobile Platform (MP), an effort to keep pace with the breakneck mobile-app industry by breathing new life into a venerable platform. While the offering is described as a full mobile operating system — a term generally used to refer to smartphone platforms — Qualcomm says it will deliver “high-end features across all 3G technologies and virtually all market tiers of mobile devices.”

In other words, it will bring much of the goodness of smartphones to the feature phones that sell for a few bucks, or are even given away when a user signs up for service. Qualcomm said the platform is free to operators and manufacturers, and the company will deliver a host of SDKs and APIs in an effort to lure application developers. Notably, AT&T has committed to launching Brew MP phones later this year, vowing that 90 percent of the “quick messaging” devices it churns out next year will run the OS.

But as the price of some smartphones plummets well below $100, do buyers of featurephone really want a smartphone experience? Are they interested in mobile apps? The short answer: Yes, many of them do. For evidence, look no further than GetJar, a Lithuania-based startup that distributes apps to a wide variety of handsets. The company said it delivered 55 million downloads in October 2009, marking a 267 percent increase from the previous year. And one of GetJar’s most popular downloads is Opera Mini β€” a browser built primarily (but not exclusively) for feature phones. Two-thirds of GetJar’s business comes from feature phones. Other app distributors are jumping into the feature-phone space, too, as The New York Times recently reported.

And while feature phones don’t get the ad dollars or media love poured on, say, Google’s Nexus One or the iPhone, they represent a massive market. Forrester Research last week said that while smartphone growth in the U.S. continues to surge, feature-phone users still accounted for a whopping 83 percent of the American mobile market last year.

Qualcomm’s strategy isn’t unprecedented, of course. Samsung appears to be pursuing the same strategy with bada, its upcoming platform aimed at helping developers bring their wares to a broad range of Samsung phones. In fact, Brew MP is really just a natural progression for carriers who’ve long offered ringtones and other goodies on their home decks β€” the strategy (and technology) has just been tweaked to compete in the new world of mobile apps.

The mobile industry has long clearly differentiated between smartphones (running OSes like Symbian, iPhone or Android) on one hand and all other handsets on the other hand. The lines between smartphones and lesser handsets grow blurrier by the day, and operating systems like Brew MP will only make things fuzzier. We’re likely to end up with a range of operating systems with varying levels of sophistication and functionality. While there will likely always be a market for simple operating systems designed for the most basic mobile usage, we’re likely to see the app phenomenon trickle down to users who can’t afford (or don’t even want) high-tech handsets that serve as handheld computers. Qualcomm has the expertise and carrier relationships to give Brew MP a good chance to gain traction with users β€” and if it can do that, developers will follow.

Question of the week

Is there a market for feature-phone applications?