Facebook Built an App for Feature Phones. Should You?

Feature phones have become afterthoughts in a market dominated by smartphone platforms like Android, iOS and BlackBerry OS. But high-profile brands like the BBC, Electronic Arts, Sports Illustrated and The Weather Channel continue to target mobile consumers with apps that run on a wide variety of feature phones and are distributed on carrier decks and through third-party sites like GetJar.

Then, last week, Facebook unveiled a new app for feature phones that will enable users to sync contacts and perform a few other basic tasks on more than 2,500 devices from manufacturers including Nokia and LG. Considering that nearly three-quarters of U.S. mobile subscribers don’t own a smartphone — a figure that is surely much higher in many foreign markets — the move should go a long way towards spurring usage of Facebook on mobile. For content publishers and app developers, the move suggests a wealth of expanded opportunity for distributing products and extending their reach. But should you target feature phones in addition to smartphones running newer, more powerful platforms? Well, maybe.

There are some valid reasons why feature phones have taken a backseat to their more sophisticated counterparts. Smartphone users simply consume more data because the phones they use boast more powerful operating systems and superior hardware.

But while feature phones don’t provide that level of high-quality user experience, they still account for the vast majority of handsets worldwide. And many are still adequate for accessing mobile web sites and using some applications that enable basic social network interaction (like Facebook’s) or simple, casual gaming. That’s especially true thanks to apps like Opera Mini, a browser that processes and compresses web content specifically for both feature phones and smartphones, which makes accessing the Internet less painful even on mediocre devices.

In deciding whether to build feature phone apps, though, developers need to address a few key issues:

  • Build a basic mobile site first. Smartphone apps can provide a richer, more immersive experience than even the best mobile site, but apps will only reach relatively small segments of the overall subscriber base. If you’re looking to reach as many users as possible, build a site that can be used by as many handsets as possible. Which means feature phones as well as smartphones. That’s a strategy Costco has wisely followed by creating a no-frills mobile site then expanding its efforts with iPhone, Android and BlackBerry apps.
  • Understand how your app works on both kinds of phones. Mobile games have always been difficult to play on traditional 12-key handsets, which generally have smaller screens, inferior controls and far less processing power. So developers of all but the simplest games can usually forgo feature phones altogether and focus on higher-end gadgets. But feature phones can work just fine for things like mobile coupon apps, basic social network interaction, or simple entertainment offerings. If your app is too complicated to deliver a good experience on feature phones, skip them altogether. But consider addressing feature phones if you can provide an adequate user experience.
  • Know your audience. If you’re a developer of productivity apps for high-powered executives, your target audience carries nothing but smartphones — so there’s no need to address lesser handsets. For more mainstream global offerings, though — like this Twitter app available from GetJar — feature phones represent a vast opportunity.
  • Understand how much reach you need — or want. Smartphone sales are expected to begin to outpace feature phone sales in the U.S. sometime this year, according to Nielsen, and feature phone usage will continue to wane substantially over the next few years. But mobile data usage is ramping up substantially in emerging markets like those in Africa, where smartphone uptake lags (although it will increase drastically in coming years). So feature phone apps can be crucial for social networks like Facebook that have established a broad international footprint, but they also remain an attractive avenue for developers looking to bring their wares to developing markets.

Question of the week

Are you building apps for feature phones?