Most of us in the development sector have been preparing for an inevitable and imminent smartphone future. But in a recent article, the BBC highlighted an interesting—if somewhat unexpected—phenomenon in the world of digital devices: the “return of the dumbphones” (we prefer the less pejorative term “feature phones,” which we use in this piece). According to the article, “While sales figures are hard to come by, one report said that global purchases of [feature phones] were due to hit one billion units last year, up from 400 million in 2019. This compares to worldwide sales of 1.4 billion smartphones last year, following a 12.5 percent decline in 2020.” Some might argue that the feature phone has never really gone away.

As the Telegraph India reports, it’s only in the last two years that smartphone purchases in sub-Saharan Africa overtook feature phone sales, and there are still at least 320 million feature phone users in India. While these trends are unlikely to stop smartphone penetration in its tracks, there are good reasons to believe that the feature phone is here to stay. Below are a few reasons why the digital development community should embrace the unlikely resilience of the humble (and decidedly non-dumb) feature phone.

sumeet-singh-okfXVsBHAtQ-unsplash (1).jpgPhoto: Unsplash.

  • Feature phones create a more accessible runway for “digital explorers” to gain digital skills and literacy. In a post last year, we wrote about the need to design for the world’s digital explorers, i.e. entire populations that are coming online quickly and en masse, navigating unfamiliar digital territory together. With simpler functions like calls and texts, feature phones are likely to create a much easier runway for digital explorers to gain and share the skills they need to navigate more complex digital tools (like smartphones) in the future.
  • Feature phones may provide a much more immediate value proposition to new users. Many of us have been in the situation of eagerly gifting a new gadget to an older relative over the holidays, only to see it sitting on a shelf unused. Indeed, only using a phone to talk and text might seem like underused value to many of us, but while feature phones may not lead a user to immediately create a digital wallet or join the gig economy, they may well provide new users with the right level of value for their lives. They have features that many consumers want—longer battery life, pre-loaded content, or larger keypads.
  • Feature phones can inspire increased trust among parents and other digital gatekeepers. In many emerging markets, cellphones are shared assets, and their access is often heavily controlled by digital gatekeepers such as parents, husbands, or other decision-makers in the family. As DAI discovered through research we did for the Sesame Workshop, parents are often concerned about their children’s safety and security, particularly in terms of possible access to pornography or violent content. Feature phones that block or severely limit internet access are likely to allay these fears, while still giving parents an easy way to communicate with their children.
  • Feature phones pose fewer security and privacy risks. By definition—if not by design—the limited internet capabilities, geo-positioning, high-resolution cameras, and other functions of a feature phone limit their vulnerability to violations of users’ security and privacy. And while these may not be the immediate concerns of a new digital user, they very much address concerns of the broader digital development community and the priorities laid out in the Principles for Digital Development. As discussed in the section on digital explorers, feature phones may also give the digital development community a way to design digital literacy programs for new users to build people’s privacy and security literacy before they make the transition to smart phones.
  • Feature phones can help pre-empt challenges around digital fatigue, attention deficit, and other psychological stressors, especially among children. There is a growing awareness about the psychological and social impacts that 24/7 digital access and social media use are having, especially among young people in more advanced digital markets in East Asia, Europe, and North America. This is reflected in movements like Wait Until 8th, which urges parents in the United States to take a pledge to limit their children’s access to smartphones until eighth grade (around 13 to 14 years of age). By embracing feature phones, perhaps the development sector can help new users to forestall and address some of these issues before they balloon out of control. In other words, feature phones might give emerging markets a way to apply lessons from what isn’t working in high-income markets.
  • Feature phones directly address many of the most important barriers to digital inclusion. In many emerging markets, the barriers to digital inclusion are fundamental; people can’t afford devices or data, or they can’t charge their phones easily. In this context, the feature phone offers an important value proposition: they are extremely budget-friendly and can often hold their charge for days on end. As such, the digital development community should continue to invest in programming that is designed to be inclusive of people using feature phones.
  • More feature phones don’t necessarily mean fewer smartphones. Many of us use different devices for different purposes: laptops for work, tablets for road trips, and cellphones for everything else. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility for all of us to carve out a space for both smartphones and feature phones in our lives. Emerging devices such as the Light Phone—which is a credit card-sized phone that only allows calls, texts, and alarms—are betting on this premise. As devices become cheaper, people in emerging markets who are witnessing the digital harms that affect high-income countries may also place a similar bet, by using specific devices to serve specific needs rather than owning only a single device.