New Delhi Taxi driver Haricharan would not trade his humble feature phone for any hi-fi smartphone.
“I can start chats (on Facebook Messenger) directly from the browser. On a smartphone you need to have two apps. Also, you end up paying much more (for a smartphone), and the battery doesn’t even last 24 hours… My (feature) phone could go on a single charge for two days,” says Haricharan.
“Sometimes I have no time to charge my phone, since I make several trips from Ramnagar to Corbett during peak seasons.”
In case you are wondering that Haricharan is an exception in a nation of a billion people who would vouch for their smartphones, you are in for a surprise.
Around 64% of Indians still prefer feature phones.
“Two-thirds of the Indian population use feature phones,” Faisal Kawoosa, lead of telecoms research wing at CyberMedia Research, told HT. “According to our analysis, India has 750 million unique subscribers and smartphones account for only 36% of them (277 million). The remaining 473 million still use feature phones.”
Companies are also looking to tap the pool of the ‘digitally underprivileged’ to grow their cash base, especially in the wake of the government’s demonetisation drive.
“With demonetisation, every company will be forced to look at developing options for the digitally underprivileged. This will also see the feature phone segment grow back as well,” Kawoosa added.
E-wallets Paytm, Mobikwik and innoz.in have already begun work to connect people to the Internet.
Paytm has devised measures to let feature phone users take advantage of its app’s services; Last week MobiKwik launched MobiKwik Lite, which allows users on 2G connections/EDGE to transact.
MobiKwik founder Bipin Preet Singh has said that the company was working on a direct feature phone service, which it expects to launch within two weeks. The company has hinted that the service will run on USSD codes -- digit combinations used by telcos, including Airtel, Vodafone and Idea, to give information about recharges, validity and other value-added services.
In fact, both Paytm and MobiKwik are working on solutions that will work even without Internet.
“All transactions that happen in the offline mode will be stored in the cache memory of the app and once the phone comes in touch with the internet, the registry of those transactions will be updated in our server,” said Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma.
A MobiKwik spokesperson also confirmed that the company was working on a similar model for a completely offline mode.
The country’s largest lender, State Bank of India, also recently launched a new wallet app for feature phone users. Known as Batua, the app has been structured on the lines of Buddy — the smartphone wallet app for SBI customers.
“Not everybody has a smartphone and that is why we thought of this version,” SBI managing director Rajnish Kumar said. Batua can be used for making utility payments, transferring funds and buying air tickets, among other things.
“The Innoz SMS platform (a search engine for offline users through SMS) has processed over 1 billion queries of users in 10 countries,” a spokesperson for Innoz said. “Innoz SMS App store has enabled millions of people use Facebook, Twitter, email and other Internet services offline.”
Tarun Pathak, who leads consumer devices research at Counterpoint, said that “even with the ongoing conversion from feature phones to smartphones, the volume of the feature phone market in India will be significant enough till two to three years from now.”
“Feature phones will be critical for digital payments, since the installed base of feature phones in India is still close to 400 million. The government needs to look at ways to push these 400 million-odd users to adopt cashless transactions through their feature phones.”
Arto Nummela, CEO of HMD Global, which plans to come out with Nokia-branded handsets soon, also sees a huge demand for feature phones globally, and not only in India. “There will be a constant demand for feature phones as many people don’t want to switch to a smartphone, whether it is for price or experience. We believe there will always be a 15% to 20% demand in the smartphone segment.”
Google and Facebook are also working on different ways to bring Internet to people even when they are not connected to the Net.