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The Hottest Phones for the Next Billion Users Aren’t Smartphones (wsj.com)
183 points by skilled 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 174 comments

Back in May, I spent a little time looking into developing an app for KaiOS, using the official documentation.

Here are some notes I wrote to myself at the time:

- there seem to be fewer apps on the Kai store than on the Banana Hackers store, which seems odd, as all of those apps in the BH store should be useful to KaiOS users

- The official docs are kind of unclear, e.g. the API docs include some options about storage, but don't tell me whether localStorage is available. If I'm a web developer then I probably want to use the storage API with which I'm already familiar.

- another doc issue: the documentation for d-pad navigation and emulated cursor is very confusing. I can't tell whether they are two different ways of using the arrow keys, or whether they serve two different purposes. This means I need to do a bunch of experimentation to see what happens

- someone on Reddit mentioned they were waiting for app store approval, and they had waited 6 weeks so far; seems hard to get developers that way?

The last one seems kind of bad. If you are going to spend your time developing for a niche platform, you would hope they would at least be on the ball in terms of app store reviewing.

The big question is: "How likely are KaiOs users willing to install third party apps".

From the article, it seems like pre-installed apps have ample usage, no mention of installation post hardware purchase.

The JioPhone can run WhatsApp, but it isn't pre-installed.

For that reason, I'd imagine 90% of Jiophone users in India would install at least one third party app.

However, they would get this from the JioStore, not from the KaiOS store: https://faq.whatsapp.com/en/kaios/26000183/?category=5245235

So if the majority of KaiOS users are using carrier-branded phones with carrier-branded app stores, maybe the developer story for 'vanilla' KaiOS isn't as important.

Users often get apps installed for them by the store at purchase. So, while they may have 3p apps installed it's not necessarily a good signal they will install more.

This helps a lot, thank you!

Do you remember FirefoxOS, the smartphone OS that was developed by Mozilla ? It was abandoned in 2016, but KaiOS, the operating system powering these feature phones, is its descendant. Firefox's rendering engine, Gecko, is at the core of the OS, and all apps are written in HTML5/JS/CSS.

I can still not see the sense in programming cheap underpowered phones with HTML5/JS/CSS instead of writing native software for them.

A normal "excuse" is that html is "easier" (LIES!) and if you wait loooong enough the performance will catch up.

I concede css make styling far easier than any native toolkit.

And is true that most UI toolkit are so unfriendly that make html+js look soooo good in contrast.

But native development have been far simpler, productive and easier for solo developers before: Delphi, HyperCard, Smalltalk, Visual FoxPro, Visual Basic prove it.

My experience is that most developers I know (in latin america) prefer 1000% of the time (maybe not exagerating by much) to code in that tools than html.

Html/js is dreaded. Is like "damm... I MUST do html and js because... what choice I have?".

The huge indictment of our industry is that it bet in a subpar tech (html/js) and have forgotten to invest on UI toolkits.

Look how much take Apple to get swift UI. Decades!


And it have hypercard before!!

i made a similar comment below. you expect us developers to cater to every different device out there? i am sorry, but the whole promise of the web is that i don't have to write native code any more.

in fact this promise was once made by steven jobs, except that the phones at the time were not capable enough.

the question is not, what's the point of using web tech for underpowered phones, but the question is why do you expect me to cater to a minority market, and when do we reach the point that any device is powerful enough to handle web tech?

because that is where the future is going. native development is a stop gap to handle high performance requirements, but make no mistake, its days are counted. web development is the future that will replace all app development, whether we like it or not. even on the desktop, thanks to webassembly the browser is the future development target on any device out there. native apps will become a niche for only very specialized applications, and servers.

I don't expect you to cater to a minority market, but whoever writes apps that run significantly better than "generic" ones using html or other frameworks (dear electron-based developers: your apps are garbage) will get my money.

Niches have a lot of money in them, to the point that entire industries blossom just to cater to them. Things like high-end personal audio and performance automobiles are both multi-billion industries.

i doubt it, because you are not going to find my app. you are going to want the same apps that everyone else uses, and the fact that there are a few apps out there that actually run well on your phone is not going to make a serious dent in my profits.

i have yet to hear about any apps that became popular because they performed better than others. in the whole market, that's just a blip.

things like high-end personal audio and performance automobiles are a high-end market market. you are asking me to create a high-performance app for a low-end market. the dynamics here are entirely different. and the profit margin is too.

well preforming apps for underpowered phones is a minority market.

i wouldn't even know how to promote my app to you.

my app is significantly faster than the competitors, and it even runs well on your cheap semi-smart phone

but does it have feature X?

sorry no, because that would make it slow

how much does it cost?


uh, why did you think i bought a cheap phone?

apps for this market will not be sold on performance, but on solving problems that are specific to this particular group of people.

Your argument was that you'd always want to develop universal apps in order to cater to everyone, not niches. Now you're talking about catering to low end garbage phones specifically. I don't doubt that catering to as large as possible an audience works for the low end of the market spectrum but I was arguing against the concept of ignoring niches, particularly high-end ones.

I want fast and feature X and I've no problem with $20 if it's better than the free one.

We were talking about different markets :)

huh, i think we are missing each other somewhere. i am talking about not catering to low end phones. i thought you were talking about better performing apps for low end phones. this whole article is about low end phones. why else would you need high performing apps? (i mean i can imagine why you would, but that is an entirely different topics, so please forgive me that i would miss that.)

in summary my argument is that:

- writing native apps to gain a bit of performance for a minority of users is not worth the added cost of development

- performance is not a selection criteria for most users

- low end phone users are unlikely to spend money on expensive apps

- catering to low end phones only makes sense for apps that are useful to that market. those apps have to be cheap, and that's yet another reason not to make them native.

and i was responding to a comment how it doesn't make sense to use web technology on low end phones.

my counter argument: it does not (no longer) make sense to write native apps. period.

you then responded that you would pay for better performing apps, but that puts you into a different niche demographic than the entire topic of the article.

now one point of the article is that the demographics will change and that there is going to be a huge market of users with low-end phones.

however that still doesn't make performance a selection criteria for people buying apps unless the phones are not able to run any of the popular apps which appears to be the case because kaiOS didn't even support native apps last i checked. in other words, apps on those phones are competing in an entirely different league, and the existing android market does not apply.

then again we have an entirely different dynamic of competing in a new market where there are no existing contenders, and the main question is, is the market big enough yet to make it worth it.

and since those phones run kaiOS native apps are off the table anyways

> even on the desktop

I'd dare say it's already happened on the desktop. I do IT for an elementary school, and pretty much none of the employees use any app other than their web browser. Right now the computer I'm sitting in front of is running Outlook, our ticketing system, WhatsApp, Discord, and Spotify all within Firefox which is the only native app I have open, and likely the only app I'll open all day.

certainly some are more ahead than others, but it proves the trend. if only the webbrowser had a better way to manage the apps. a desktop of sorts.

i do realize that we are reinventing everything here. and as some said elsewhere, html is not the best of tools to create user interfaces. not by a long shot[1]. but the dream of a single unified architecture that we can all develop towards may at last become a reality.

[1] actually, thanks to things like canvas or webassembly we are not necessarily stuck with html. we'll be able to create gui toolkits in javascript (hey, js-framework developers, here is your next target: the js-gui-toolkit of the week ;-) or maybe even port existing toolkits to webassembly and then our gnome or windows apps will simply run inside the browser instead.

the day of the linux desktop (for those that are still waiting for it) will be the day of the browser desktop

>but the question is why do you expect me to cater to a minority market

Where do you get the idea that anyone expects you to do anything? Since when are hackers opposed to more options, especially those outside the walled gardens of modern smartphones? If it's worth it, do it. If it isn't, don't. If the system sucks, it'll fail. But why rail against the idea?

I think that HTML5/JS/CSS is the recommended way to write apps for KaiOS.

Seems kind of fun in a way, the bloated JS frameworks we are used to probably won't run very well, so you would need to work at a lower level and really optimize.

Or work with a JS framework that compiles into vanilla JS, like Svelte[1].

[1] https://svelte.dev

Nice, wasn't even aware that Svelte was a thing, thanks.

Cheaper because the skills are ubiquitous. I'm also assuming the apps are simple so the web triad can cover most use cases.

It's irrelevant because still no one will build for the platform. MS, Blackberry, Nokia have all demonstrated there's just no market for a third "app platform".

These phones will have the apps from the factory, and nothing more.

Maybe you can not earn tons of money by writing a "drink beer" or "I am rich" app, but people are writing simple games and utilities with millions of installs.

The platforms I mentioned simply don't exist any more because all people made for them were "drink beer" apps.

The point was to convince developers to write their apps for the open web as well. Something that definitely was justifiable.

They have what Microsoft didn't: an exploding user base.

Because most app writers don't know how to write native code? See all the bloated React powered apps out there

The company that I work for doesn't have a native app for our web-based product. Part of this is definitely because we have only two developers, and not enough time to invest in additional platforms.

However, when our sales guys talk to customers (SMBs), they are universally pleased that we don't have a native app for phones. None of their employees want to install an app just to use the software on their phones. The fact that our product has a responsive design and is sufficiently performant on android and iOS based phones is more than enough for them.

Gotta know your market.

Knowing I can't change the past and don't care much about the future beyond the near term success of my platform, I would target the languages that have an overwhelming majority of developers.

I have a sense that the web stack makes up a large majority of developers who can/do develop UI-centric user applications.

Development time. Time to market is more important than performance even on slow phones.

Time to market for what? Do you think those users won't use apps that are built for hundreds of millions of users (i.e. same/similar chat, payments etc apps as everyone else uses)

I wonder if there is a compromise that would look something like Gopher - very lightweight, limited UI etc.

NB I'm not literally recommending Gopher but a modern day equivalent.

A little more info from the KaiOS website (https://developer.kaiostech.com):

> KaiOS is a web-based mobile operating system that enables a new category of smart feature phones. It is forked from B2G (Boot to Gecko), a successor of the discontinued Firefox OS. KaiOS brings support of 4G/LTE, GPS, and Wi-Fi, as well as HTML5-based apps and longer battery life, to non-touch devices. It has an optimized user interface for smart feature phones, needs little memory, and consumes less energy than other operating systems. It also comes with the KaiStore, which enables users to download applications in categories like social media, games, navigation, and streaming entertainment.

Do you remember FirefoxOS, the smartphone OS that was developed by Mozilla ? It was abandoned in 2016, but KaiOS, the operating system powering these feature phones, is its descendant

Yeah. I bought two FirefoxOS phones and was keen. Unfortunately it never got to critical mass. Actually mailed the last of them to someone from India I met on HN. Recently I saw a French guy in HK on my LinkedIn managing some new effort under KaiOS. I was all motivated to meet and share some ideas (used to work in mobile, most handset manufacturers ~2009-2010) but found out the company is owned by that evil mafiosi Ambani, the same guy who bulldozed thousands of people's homes in Mumbai to build an uninhabited luxury condo, and who is destroying Australia's Queensland/Barrier Reef region with a massive coal mine. Crook.

> who bulldozed thousands of people's homes in Mumbai to build an uninhabited luxury condo

Do you have source for this claim?

> who is destroying Australia's Queensland/Barrier Reef region

That's Adani, not Ambani.

I'm no fan of crony capitalism, but such false claims on HN aren't cool.

I've never heard of him before, but I looked it up and it would appear the condo claim of being unoccupied for a significant period of time after construction and bulldozing peoples homes (possibly not thousands but apparently including an orphanage) is true.



Oops my bad! Sorry end of a hacking session didn't fact check :) Unintentional. Thanks for setting the record straight.

Reflecting on it, it is completely crazy that these devices are available for 25$. Somewhere along the line of production the exploitation chain must really work out.

Just ordered a pack of µC the other day for under 1$ per unit. These come with powerful computation cores, floating point units, analog-digital converters, countless integrated serial interfaces... You don't even get a coke for that price. Completely insane world...

I don't think they use harsher practices in production.

Smartphone production is just the same:

First the people are enslaved to get the resources out of some mines, then some Asian workers (inc. children etc.) have to assemble (996 without a loan you'd want to live with). Then it's transported via logistics which is another sector that refuses to treat people like human beings. In the end of the line we have the eager sales guys who knowingly lie to customers and themselves to get a lot of sales.

The difference is that companies earn a lot more on a single sale for a smartphone but the scale of the sales of these feature phones could end up being more revenue I think. On the other hand marketing costs could be much lower because the price plus features alone would beat every smartphone at once.

I think it's crazy we still didn't modularize these devices and have nice OS'es for them.

Do you have a source for the slave labour claim?

"cases of forced labour have been documented in electronics factories supplying major brands such as Apple, Acer, HP, and Sony, among many others"


Let's not be naïve... If he had a source, they would have to act on it, close everything down, and else. Then the phone price would rise to $400 and the factory would close as well, and all the supply chain would suffer. I guess they just turn their heads the other way on this kind of things.

That's the interesting thing - we know so much but so little changes (fast enough). We call ourselves civilized and think about colonizing other planets but still haven't solved the problem of poverty.

Everyone who isn't ignoring this based on a decision to do so knows about the practices under which people have to suffer every day to sustain our nice lifestyle here I think.

The problem is the way the whole industry works because new products need to be sold continuously for a company to survive.

We all know climate change is here but it will take us decades to react globally.

Of course they turn their heads - it's much easier that way to enjoy all the money they got for acting like this.

If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

- C.S. Lewis

here you have more resources:



There is much more if you want to research further. I'm astonished you didn't know that.

To realize this led me to buy used computers and phones instead of new ones among other stuff I try to improve in my personal/professional radius.

It's not exactly "insane" - a bottle of fizzy-pop requires a fair amount of materials. Hundreds of grams of sugar, potable water, preservatives, flavorings. And they weigh what, 300 grams each? That's a hefty BOM and a fairly heavy product.

Integrated circuits are tiny specks of material, usually encased in comparatively huge plastic rectangles which are still only a few mm on each side.

The cost is almost all capital investment. After years of having a working design and process, the marginal cost of each chip is negligible. Most of what you actually pay for is probably validation and transportation.

What's really expensive is getting an application running on one with the reliability that people expect of a consumer electronic device. Yes, modern Cortex-M cores can do just about everything, but it takes some expertise and/or time to get them to do anything in particular.

Anyways, how much do you pay for a few hundred milligrams of acetaminophen? Is that also completely insane?

> that people expect of a consumer electronic device

Consumers are way too entitled. Look at aeronautic applications where it just has to work for a few hours until you have to reboot everything.

But anyway, even if development costs amortize with giant quantities, it still requires complex machinery and a trained workforce for manufacturing.

It is evidently possible, but the result is still amazing.

Development for the chips is costly, but in many applications the same principle seems to apply.

Porting to another processor can happen if a chip becomes available that is a few cent cheaper. I have often seen that, even though porting isn't trivial and in many cases pretty error prone in my opinion. (compiler change, specs just completely different...)

> Anyways, how much do you pay for a few hundred milligrams of acetaminophen? Is that also completely insane?

Honestly it seems that it is. I got the impression that something about the price is wrong. That is why I often have the thought that pharma might rip off their patients and chip manufacturers concentrate on exploitation of workers instead. Pharma might not have this option to that degree because counterfeiting is easier to accomplish in that domain.

Not that I want to complain about cheap and powerful hardware too loudly...

One of the best non-smart feature of these smart feature phones is battery. These batteries can go on for days ofcourse depending on the usage.

> Reflecting on it, it is completely crazy that these devices are available for 25$.

They are most probably subsidized, though not sure how much of it is considering they offer 14 GB for 1.50$ a month.

I have one of these simpler feature phones and use it as my primary phone device. It started as an experiment when my phone screen broke as a backup device and to get rid of smart phone addiction. Positive cutting down wasting time in phone apps. The phone forces me to call people more often as it is tedious to text on its interface which is a good thing. There is very few apps so time trap like that can be avoided.

It has quite good battery time days to weeks. The phone is very sturdy.

Drawbacks, cannot purchase train tickets online, cannot use online bank.

Drawback camera.

One needs to use the brain to navigate so one forces to know the way how to navigate. Its a bit hard if you get stuck in the middle of nowhere but then the phone has a navigation map app.

Smartphone zero.

> The phone forces me to call people more often as it is tedious to text on its interface which is a good thing

Most folks I know don't really use calling anymore. If one of my friends called me, I'd probably pick up because I assumed it was an emergency. If they just called to talk, I'd tell them to text me.

YMMV here but younger crowds seem to shun voice calling IMO.

i don't know if i still count with the younger crowd but i guess i was an early adopter of internet tech.

calling you on the phone means that my time is more important than yours and you had better be available when i want you to.

that said, pure social calls are fine, they are less disruptive than needing to discuss something that is not urgent or even important. if it's anything i need to remember, or think about before responding then i really prefer messages.

"i don't know if i still count with the younger crowd but i guess i was an early adopter of internet tech"

The internet is 50 years old this year. I'm sorry to break this to you but you are no longer young.

50 years if you go back to the beginning - but most people didn't get on the internet until the early 1990s, when it was "opened up" to commercial interests (which led to the meme of "Al Gore invented the internet").

Prior to that, the only way to get access to the internet (D/ARPANET) was (generally) thru educational or military connections; one of the few exceptions to this (I don't understand exactly how it worked) was being a member of The Well, which allowed some kind of internet access (not sure if it was limited to email, or if other access was allowed?).

The number of people on the internet prior to (roughly) 1992 were mostly confined to the United States, and was a relatively small percentage of the total population of the country, simply because of the exclusivity of the connections; it was open to commercial traffic. Prior to 1992, most people who had experienced some from of "online connection" did so via either multiuser private commercial networks (two of the largest in the USA were Tymnet and Telenet), or large "walled garden" shared systems like AOL. Then of course there were the myriad local and long-distance Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) - which toward the "end" (I put that in quotes because they never really fully "died") in the early-1990s started to standardize on form of "email" called FidoNet (IIRC, even the original developer thought of it as a hot mess of code that barely worked).

All of this is to say that for most people (but not all - certainly more than a few people here on HN likely had access to the internet prior to 1992) the internet is only about 30 years old.

Though you remain correct in the assessment that "we are no longer young"...sigh.

The US didn’t invent the internet either. Concurrently there were multiple research networks, which were consolidated into ARPANET. So of course the number of people on ARPANET were mostly confined to the US.

It is strangely hard to find information about all the research networks or competing international commercial BBSes from then, but two names I can find are the Association for Progressive Communications and CYCLADES.

"50 years if you go back to the beginning - but most people didn't get on the internet until the early 1990s"

Yes but I'm specifically talking about someone who's an "early adopter"!

Early adopter was pretty much anyone before y2k.

Probably depends on what you mean by "young". Anecdotally (family friends + news articles, although who knows what the latter is worth) a lot of teens are super-into videochat as a primary means of communication. Facetiming someone is (allegedly) as common and casual for teens as texting is for 20-somethings.

You've answered with information about a different concept. Videochat is different to voice chat. Many young people use videochat (with 1 or more other person involved). It's pure voice calls which are far less common (and typically involve just 1 other person).

Group voice chat, without video, is also very common in some communities. For example, in the Guitar Hero community, Discord voice chats are ubiquitous.

Totally irrelevant to the topic at hand - voice calling.

Right, I was asserting that people often use voice chat who don't ever do voice calls. Basically, we're in agreement. Hell, I'm almost 40 and I don't like voice calls

    The phone forces me to call people more often as it is tedious to text on its interface which is a good thing.
What's your Voice & SMS plan on that phone(Jio)?

Before smartphones, prior 2006 people opted for cheaper SMS prepaid plans over costly Voice rates(dedicated channels & limited resources). Our choices are based on cheaper rates of communication, now we've unlimited voice calls as a norm.

WhatApp'ing(or similar on smartphones) is richer than MMS'ing. SMSes are losing out, only limited to VAS-App & OTP code notifications.

Depending on where you live, SMS and talk is basically free at this point. The telco I currently use does not have a single plan that doesn't include unlimited talk and texting. The only difference is the amount of data included.

Everything you wrote resonates with me except for one thing: "The phone forces me to call people more often as it is tedious to text on its interface". For me it's the exact opposite, older phones with physical buttons were much better for writing texts than touchscreens.

For them, it's not a simpler feature phone, as the article mentions they gather around to watch movies at night on it. They offer 14 GB for 1.50$ a month.

Which device do you have? Does it have a basic web browser?

Interesting article but title is pretty bad. Amount of users have risen for these kind of phones not because they are the new iPhones, but because pay-gap between countries have stood same while technology reached all over the world. Everyone wants to chat and send pictures of loved ones to each other, but while someone is earning 4-5 thousand dollars a month, another one is earning 80 dollars a month. Companies know this and try to make the best possible device possible for the situation.

In what sense are these not smartphones? They run a flavour of Linux, they have internet access, they're programmable and have an app store. They sound just as capable as flagship phones from a few years ago, except that they're not primarily touchscreen based and they don't use the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

They are feature phones.

>Feature phone is a term typically used to describe a class of mobile phones that are still technically otherwise smartphones, besides their lack of highly advanced hardware and capabilities of modern ones. Feature phones tend to use an embedded operating system or real-time operating system with graphical user interface which are small and simple, unlike large and complex general-purpose mobile operating systems like Android or iOS, they typically provide voice calling and text messaging functionality in addition to basic multimedia and Internet capabilities and other services offered by the user's wireless service provider.


OK, so from that, they are smartphones, just low-end ones which probably isn't software-compatible with higher end smartphones.

Yes, unless I completely misrecall, these were called “smartphones” before the iPhone launched.

After that, the iPhone was clearly something qualitatively different, so people (or rather, journalists, phone stores and the like) started calling the old style “feature phones”.

I’d say it’s now misleading and even incorrect to call something a “smartphone” if it doesn’t have a full-size touchscreen.

> Yes, unless I completely misrecall, these were called “smartphones” before the iPhone launched.

You don't misrecall. Even phones without a full keyboard like Nokia's N-series (e.g. the very popular N-70 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_N70) were considered smartphones.

After that, the iPhone was clearly something qualitatively different, so people (or rather, journalists, phone stores and the like) started calling the old style “feature phones”.

Exactly, "feature phones" were called that because of how the cell phone companies had to try to sell previous-generation phones in the same market as the iPhone. When other cell phone companies saw the iPhone, they realized the only way to present their phones as competitive was to frame the iPhone as a bundle of features (music player, web browser, games) and say hey, that's not so special, our phones do that stuff too. So you had flip or candy-bar phones that had an app for playing music, a terrible, crippled mobile web browser, maybe email, maybe a weather app, and some built-in games.

Calling these phones feature phones is a pretty awful knock, in other words. It means they aren't comparable to smart phones.

They were called smartphones even after the iPhone launch until the iOS v. Android duopoly was established.

You’re right, before Android took off, it was just “iPhone”.

I think before iPhone, feature phones were the ones that only run J2ME apps/games. Smartphones were; Symbian, Maemo.

Maemo was comparable or better than ios at that time...

And (the original) Windows Mobile.

That's fascinating how people forget about (the original) Windows Mobile that had 42% of U.S. smartphone market share in 2007.

Can't agree with that - many early androids, the original and current android Blackberry (key2?) are all smartphones, but have or had a keyboard. There's also a selection of crazy expensive Far East smart flip phones with Motorola Razr form factor.

All deserve to be called smart phones.

"Smartphone" was originally a Microsoft coinage intended to refer to devices running Windows Mobile, which were in many ways closer to modern smartphones than to feature phones: they had large (for the day) touch screens, could run sophisticated apps like a Web browser or a cut down version of Office, etc.

"Feature phones" were at one point the high end of a carrier's phone lineup, as they offered features, such as music playback, a camera, or WAP internet access, that a basic phone did not. Usually they could only run very limited applications, written in things like Java ME, that were available for sale through your cell carrier. When the iPhone was released, feature phones became the new low end. (Pre-iPhone smartphones were quite rare, usually being carried by on the go execs and the like.)

Yeah, I had a Nokia 6680 back in 2005 that was classed as smartphone (Symbian after all was a Smartphone OS).

It was, of course, absolutely bloody awful and didn't have even enough RAM to do the most basic things. But it was 3G and I had an unlimited plan that I tried to make the most of by watching videos etc on the go. I even used to use it as an MP3 player.

Which brings another point: the jio phone is orders of magnitude better than the deaths phones available the last time feature phones were big in the US or Europe.

As I understood it, the key difference was being able to add functionality by installing third-party applications. That's what made a smartphone "smart", as opposed to a featurephone which was stuck with only the "features" implemented by the manufacturer.

If you're looking for a word to describe phones whose interface consists of a touchscreen with icons and gestures, I'd suggest "phablet".

Most feature phones of the era could install J2ME apps, which had pretty deep APIs (including GPS, hardware 3D graphics, Bluetooth, camera, filesystem, J2ME live wallpapers etc) and on higher-end feature phones could be multitasked.

When the iPhone launched, people called it a smartphone even though you couldn't install apps. Multitasking was also years away.

"Smartphone" has never meant anything really. Just marketing.

Phablet means something distinctly different; it’s a phone that’s so large that it’s verging in being a tablet. Usually thing means a between 5” and 6” screen.

By your definition the original iPhone (3.5” screen) was a phablet.

Yes, but the size people see as phablet has changed over time. It's basically a size larger than the average person is comfortable with as a phone. Yes, it used to be 5-6", but now it is more in the 6-7.5" range, largely due to the shrinking of bezels allowing larger screens in the same physical size phone.

Virtually all pre-iphone featurephones could install third-party Java apps.

And Symbian and Windows CE apps.

yes, it's simply a change in terminology - they're pretty far from the old days of nokia devices running very close to the hardware

Smart phones grew out of feature phones. Marketers needed a new name to differentiate them.

Goalposts are truly moving over time. Perhaps devices similar to current gen iPhones and Android phones aren't considered smart phones in 20 years.

That's hilarious, because a family member owns a feature phone (a small flip phone) that runs Android under the hood

By that definition my old Nokia brick from 2005 with a black and white screen was a smart phone.

The boundary is fuzzy, sure, but the term usually means a phone where the app usage is front and center and phone usage is secondary.

Now these new phones might be somewhere in-between.

It isn't of course, Nokia smartphones from that period had colour screens and ran Symbian. They had 3G, Video calling, MP3/Video playback, fairly okay web browsers (I used to use Opera), and okay-ish photo/video capabilities. You could even edit documents on them if you hated yourself that much.

They just lacked CPU power and RAM capacity compared to what came when the iPhone launched.

Models would be:

6600 6630 6680 N70 N73

I actually had another Symbian powered Smartphone when the iPhone launched, the Motorola Rizr Z8 which made the Nokia powered Symbian's at the time look really slow. I sort of miss that phone and it's form-factor, it even came with a pair of Stereo Bluetooth Headphones. Massively ahead of it's time, of course not as slick as the iPhone and AirPod combo I have now, but great in it's own way.

> It isn't of course, Nokia smartphones from that period had colour screens and ran Symbian. They had 3G, Video calling, MP3/Video playback, fairly okay web browsers (I used to use Opera), and okay-ish photo/video capabilities. You could even edit documents on them if you hated yourself that much.

Those Symbian S60 Nokia phones you listed could install and run apps written in "C++". Emphasis on those quotes! But regardless, your very own native code, doing your bidding. Been there, done that.

It worked, but writing those apps was very tedious and hard. Everything was async to save power. No standard libraries, etc.

I'm very happy there's no need for "leave stack" and "cleanup stack" etc. in the modern world.

But damn, that architecture was really helping the battery to last for a long time. Your code simply would not be running until some async thing did a callback.

Don't forget native SIP!

I don't see anything in the article that suggests phone use would be greater with these 'smart feature phones'.

The only reference it has to how they're used talks about app usage "Now he listens to Bollywood music on the job, using Google’s built in voice assistant to search for Hindi-language tunes on YouTube. At night his family crowds around the device to watch movies."

They are. It's just in today's terms, "smartphone == has touchscreen" and "feature phone == looks like old fashioned phone with keyboard".

Almost a 15 years ago, there was a very popular OEM design called Inventec E29. It was one of very first real working Linux based phones.

It did not make a big splash even among Linux enthusiasts, and vanished tracelessly as Android took over.

Only now, the type of a device you can call "an Internet pager" is truly finding its use again.

The irony is as the Internet becoming near ubiquitous, the less is the marginal value in having the latest and greatest device for using it. Most of what people use them now are IMs and digital wallets.

A lot of my coworkers are now settling with something even dumber for phone use, and use 7-8 inch tablet as the main mobile device: https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32824383761.html?spm=a2g0o.p...

Or some go for things like this, a bluetooth remote for the main device that can access your address book and act as handsfree: https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32839686717.html?spm=a2g0o.p...

Yes, they're technically smartphones, but by that use of the word, all phones in the last 15 years are smartphones.

Over the past decade, the term smartphone typically refers to a general purpose computing device that fits in your pocket that also acts as a phone. There is also more recently an implied requirement of a touch screen. A feature phone is more of an appliance device, where the primary feature is a phone, but it also has other limited features, some of which are internet enabled.

Unlike a smartphone, where you have a lot of control over what software you can put on it (similar to a PC), a feature phone only has a limited set of preinstalled features and optionally has a limited app store to add some more limited features.

By those definitions, the phones in the article are more feature phone than smartphone.

> Unlike a smartphone, where you have a lot of control over what software you can put on it (similar to a PC), a feature phone only has a limited set of preinstalled features and optionally has a limited app store to add some more limited features.

I used to develop apps and games on feature phones using Java MIDP, so 15 ago phones were already smartphones, there was just no app ecosystem back then nor real economy, that's all.

But it was possible to install 3rd party apps and even browsers like Opera Mobile on flip phones.

The difference is in the CPU power. Today some phones are more powerful than some cheap laptops.

Yeah it's pretty funny how people have a problem paying as much for their laptop as they do for their phone lol.

It's hard for me to believe, but a lot of people prefer phones over laptops as computing devices, and they use them a lot more.

Put it on an installment plan, market it as a premium device (status symbol) and people will pay anything.

I think that the main difference between smartphones and feature phones is that smartphones have separate processors for applications and for the modem (the "application processor" and the "broadband processor"), whereas in feature phones a single processor handles everything.

Most current smartphones don’t fit in pockets anymore.

For me the definition of smartphone vs feature phone or whatever is that smartphone is primarily to be used for internet whether it's content consumption or apps, whereas feature phones are primarily to be used with cellular network for making calls and sending sms.

If you are interested in this new feature phones running KaiOS, I recommend taking a look at the BananaHackers website[1] and twitter account[2].

Some of those devices (such as the Jio phone shown in the article) can be jailbroken to support a lot more applications.

[1]: https://sites.google.com/view/bananahackers/home [2]: https://twitter.com/BananaHackers

If I'd have to I could live without all apps except for two:

- Google Authenticator

- Password Safe

(- E-Mail would be nice, though)

Actually I find appeal in only being able to check messages (except for urgent messages via SMS) when I'm home at my computer. But I need a device for the 2nd factor and an auxiliary organizer for passwords.

http://motp.sourceforge.net/ runs freakin' everywhere, even on J2ME phones ^^

Interesting. I wonder how long it’ll be before these people, or maybe between a cohabiting family, can afford the cheapest smartphones.

I think the idea is supposed to be that internet access, even of such a limited form, I supposed to inspire at least some people to upgrade, up-skill, want more for themselves and their families, etc.

it may or it may not, in fact i may be motivated to downgrade. i really don't want my phone to be that all-encompassing device that takes over my life. the more limited its use the better. for me that is messaging and voice calls and maybe video calls. and playing audio. web on the phone is for looking up things on the go. likewise apps for work that needs to be done while outside (todo lists, maps)

i don't want to upgrade, and i expect that someone who does want that will be better served with a cheap laptop alongside that phone than a more expensive phone.

of course that makes me one of the nay-sayers who is rejecting the smartphone revolution. but i can dream, can't i?

I'd happily downgrade if one of these smart-feature-phones had a good camera and better typing method. I guess I could just delete all the apps off my phone, or develop better habits.

But I meant to frame my previous comment in the context of the article, where it's talking about those who can't yet afford a smartphone but probably want one.

good point. but my comment can be extended to that group. do they really want a more expensive phone or do they want their problems solved?

no matter which though, speculating from the sidelines isn't going to help.

unfortunately i fear that a big drive to more expensive phones is because they are being used as a status symbol.

but that too is a sideline comment and is not nice to the people we talk about

Ever since I came across Paul Graham's blog article a couple days ago on PR stories and how ubiquitous they are, I have been on the lookout for them. And this is a PR funded/fed story.

Sorry. Article on KaiOS came up a few months back. This is a rewrite.

So, an article in the WSJ about a $25 phone sold only in India with a feature set rivalling that of a 2005 BlackBerry is a PR push for...what, exactly?

You don't see the problem here?

This guy sells mangoes on the street and can afford a data plan that lets him stream music all day and watch movies on his cell phone in the evening.

This is unthinkable in Canada (except for those socialists in Sask.).

KaiOS. The entire article is selling KaiOS. Side feature is JioPhone.

There is no difference in smartness here. Or at least, now we get to see that marketers meant internet when they said "smart".

If only web dev would stop putting megabytes and megabytes of JS crap in their website, and use plain HTML and server-side script (just when needed), they would be able to capture those new users...

Or actually learn how to develop natively for the OS these feature phones use. Does the JioPhone run the same OS and use the same app store as the equivalent Nokia feature phone, for example?

you expect us web developers to cater to every different device out there? i am sorry, but the whole promise of the web is that i don't have to do that. it's impossible to test for all the different devices out there, so either the devices follow a common standard where the only difference for web is screen size and resolution, or they can expect to be ignored.

> you expect us web developers to cater to every different device out there? i am sorry, but the whole promise of the web is that i don't have to do that.

A basic HTML document with CSS styling will adapt beautifully to any screen and requires very little CPU or memory. Write once, view on every device with a browser. Publishing content is also part of the original vision of the web, and luckily HTML forms are also accessible to any device.

Yes, you want to write apps, and perhaps that requires more from a device, and maybe you don't want to cater to poor Indians. But lots of sites are sending down 3 megabytes of JS to display an article and run 48 ad trackers. That's a crappy experience even on my smartphone and decent WiFi.

I'd also wager that there are many, many "apps" you could write which could be 100% server-side rendering and simple markup, and which would be super useful in the developing world. Think Craiglist and Ebay - the kind of applications that help people share their location and agree on prices of goods.

The "use anywhere" promise of the web is easier to keep if you lean on the web's fundamentals instead of writing a browser to run in the browser and shipping it to every user.

The current web developers have a huge problem not only with having the pages downloading many megabytes for the article of a few kilobytes, but also with the required memory footprint. Specifically, a friend of mine tried to use iPad 2 (which had 500 MB RAM) as long as possible and gave up already around, if I remember, late 2014). I didn't understand why he complains that the surfing on it was impossible, but I've tried to do the same with the 1 GB iPad, and surely enough, a year or two later, there were already the apps and the "news" web pages for which even 1 GB of RAM (!) was practically not enough.

I of course know it's not about the developers only but the practices of the markets, delivering hundreds of ad trackers on a single page etc. But it's still for me on some level hard to accept the fact that a single web page delivering a few kilobytes of some news needs more than 1 GB of RAM.

good point. i was almost going to add cpu and memory capabilities into the differences a web developer should be able to handle, but unfortunately those are exactly among the issues that are hard if not impossible to test for. i can easily emulate a different screensize and maybe resolution. but i can't emulate the different cpu and ram of any other device.

> i can't emulate the different cpu and ram of any other device.

Of course you can: run a virtual machine, give it e.g. 500 MB, don't allow the guest OS to have the swap file, install there your favorite browsers and try (and weep).

It will be hard and unpleasant for you, but that's exactly what the users with less money are faced with. To ease your initial pain (or make the installation of the browsers or the OS even possible?), you can first install the OS and the browsers with more virtual RAM on the guest and only then reduce it.

And of course, you'd have to clear the browser cache every time before you try your pages. Also ideally, limit the network speed and increase the request latency!

Also to get the "realistic" CPU speed, run that all on some less powered CPU, like: https://www.amazon.com/Intel-Compute-Computer-Processor-BOXS... with Atom processor.

The question is more the will and not the technical aspect. And explaining all that to the managers, if you are in a company which doesn't have awareness of the potential users around the world.

To give you an idea: I can read still HN site on the underpowered devices, but there are enough sites today which just don't load or crash (i.e. I can't read the linked articles). It's that bad.

no you can't.

that virtual machine does not compare at all to the actual performance on a phone where the app runs besides other apps and native services, deals with different latencies for device access, internet speed etc.

yes, i can test my app that way, and it will probably good to do so to catch the most blatant performance issues. but then i could just test on my own phone for the same effect. in no way though i am going to be able to test across a multitude of devices, all of which have different performance characteristics.

> but then i could just test on my own phone for the same effect

If I may guess, your phone has 2 GB RAM minimum and at least 4 core CPU and therefore is much stronger than what I talk about? Like I’ve said, using Apple iPad 2 (which probably are easy to find and have 500 MB RAM) is a good start. You can’t dismiss those as being not polished enough. They are just specced less powerful than the current first world phones.

My VM suggestion is that the tests can be done on every notebook. If your page fails on that setup it’s obviously not suited for the less powered devices.

I don't expect anybody to do anything, more suggesting that a good way to tap into this market would be to develop native apps that don't suck.

A bit of Google-fu shows that a lot of these phones run something called KaiOS, and it looks like native apps are actually build using HTML/CSS/JS anyway - https://developer.kaiostech.com/

> So the company developed the JioPhone, teaming up with Hong Kong-based KaiOS Technologies Inc., which makes the most widely used operating system powering smart feature phones globally.

It's cool that a (potentially) billion more computers will be running linux: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KaiOS

The version of KaiOS that shipped with HMD new Nokia-branded phones was such a piece of garbage compared to s40/s60 I had to return mine. I hope this one is better.

I don't understand what this article is about. I owned feature phones, most inexpensive ones. They had internet access, web browser, maps application, chat clients. I used all of that in 2004 and it was regular feature phone maybe at $100. I am sure I can buy one now and it has gotten somewhat cheaper, but. How is it news 15 years later?

This article talks about a developing market made of first-time internet users that are buying cheap feature phones. It is interesting because this is taking place in New Delhi and because this cycle is exactly what the west went through in 2004.

The news is that those people can now afford to have a phone to start with.

And for a large majority even that feature phone is the first kind of computing device they ever own.

I suppose because WSJ covers markets and there are still many places in the world where the number of people who do not own a smart/feature phone greatly outnumbers the current users. In these markets the companies that dominate are unlikely to be commonly known names from the West.

What makes KaiOS powered phones stand out from other feature phones is that they support 4G, which gets more and more important as network operators continue to shut down their 2G and 3G networks.

The news is that their popularity is drastically increasing in some regions I guess?

Can we please get these here in the US too?

I would absolutely use a Nokia 8110 4G as my main phone except for just a few missing apps. Mainly Signal; I'd also want an XMPP client that supports OMEMO, though Converse.js might work. I love the retro styling of it, especially that it looks just like the phones in The Matrix.

A lot of them will be Android, or based on Android. Android was created with the ability to accommodate non-touch form factors and d-pad navigation in the UI. Applications that aspire to portability to non-touch use cases in cars and TVs still need to use widgets that correctly implement up/down/left/right/select navigation, displaying a navigation highlight color.

These are, nevertheless, smartphones. Just smartphones that squeeze out every drop of cost. They will have access to most Android apps, and a full featured browser.

There may be a market niche for phones without a color screen, no installable apps, etc. It will be challenging to eke out significantly lower costs than lo-end hardware suitable for lo-end Android configurations, due to volume efficiency.

The other day I had spent some time reading up on the whole GPL v2/3 debate and Tivoization.

Would it have been impossible to use Linux on these phones under GPL v3? I assume that it would be very difficult to provide "installation information" required by the license.

Bought the Nokia banana phone with KaiOS earlier this year. Sold it on after discovering that it came pre-infested with both Google and Facebook. Sailfish OS still seems the best choice. Alternatives are my old Nokia N900 or my more recent Microsoft Lumia 980XL.

As an American, where can I order these phones, and are they easy to develop on? Seems like a good opportunity. Whatsapp turned into a $19 billion dollar business by targeting this demographic (their app worked on pretty much any phone you could find).

Even feature phones ten years ago were pretty capable and MS and Nokia had plenty of smart phones priced at feature phone prices back in the day. I used to work in Nokia when they were still the biggest phone manufacturer.

A cheap phone does not have to be lacking in features. Mostly the reason we don't see them a lot in the west is because manufacturers prefer to sell you a more expensive phone. It's that simple. Operators and manufacturers conspire to keep these thing out of the market because they want to sell more expensive products.

What's happening elsewhere is that the competition elsewhere is heating up for the rest of the world. For the last decade that market was dominated by landfill Android and a multitude of cheap rip offs and legacy products. E.g. Nokia kept milking S30 well into this decade and there might still be a few variants that they are selling. The original version of that dates back to the early nineties.

Before they sold their phone business, Nokia had big plans for bringing linux to feature phones and they had a platform in advanced stages of development before they layed off the entire unit. They actually had two different linux platforms, meego for smartphones, which did launch publically before killing it off and Meltemi (internal code name) which they never launched. Meltemi was intended for cheap phones (replacing the S40 platform, not Symbian in case you confused that with S60) and based on QT/QML and linux running on cheap hardware. S40 was actually a quite capable system and effectively the money maker for Nokia.

The Meltemi strategy is basically what is happening now almost a decade later in the form of SailOS, KaiOS and other linux based platform trying to fill the gap left by a mostly indifferent Google and Apple when it comes to low end platforrms. Apple simply does not sell to poor people and Google isn't much better. They like talking about it but it's an after thought in their platform strategy.

Samsung tried pushing Bada (basically an evolved Meego) for a while. LG had WebOS and there have been a few more. The problem with all of these (and Nokia) is that electronics manufacturers are not great at developing software. Apple is a lone exception and arguably they are a software developer that happens to produce hardware instead.

> The gadgets look like the inexpensive Nokia Corp. phones that were big about two decades ago. But these hybrid phones, fueled by inexpensive mobile data, provide some basic apps and internet access in addition to calling and texting.

In other words, they are maybe like Japanese phones two decades ago.


So does anyone know an actually good feature phone I could buy in UK right now?

4G capability and maps are a plus but neither essential.

Not sure how it panned out but the Nokia 8110 4G looked pretty interesting when it was announced: limited intrinsic capabilites (and long battery life) but IIRC able to act as a hotspot / WiFi AP bridging 4G to your non-cellular tablet or laptop.

wow it actually looks pretty cool (dont like the curve but its fine)

"There is a trade-off for the low price. The devices typically have slower and less powerful components, only basic cameras and their screens are usually just a few inches in size...."

IMHO, that's a feature, not a bug ... if all you really want is a phone.

There are probably so many replacement parts that exist for iPhone 4,5, and SE series, Apple could easily create an updated low-cost iOS hardware offering, but that won’t be until they fully embrace being a services company.

Their lower-end offerings would be ‘lowcost’ thin-clients.

“Smart feature phones, as they are known, are one of the mobile-phone industry’s fastest-growing and least-known segments, providing a simple way for some of the world’s poorest people to enter the internet economy.” ....sure tomato tomato

These sound like smartphones. The fact they're not as advanced as higher end phones doesn't mean they're not smartphones. They seem to have all the features that the first generation of smartphones had.

I'd really love to buy something like this for my 80 year-old mother in law, she's absolutely terrified of mobile phones and still uses a landline. Will it be available in the US?

$70 Nokia 8110 4G is same hardware in different package.

You could buy something like a Nokia e63. It does just as much.

If it supports TOTP and QR codes, I'd buy one just for 2FA.

I have a VoLTE phone with a dial pad. It works great. However the launcher seems to be restarting from time to time, because it's Android Go running under 512MB memory.

I would genuinely like a smart feature phone. I've been trying to cut down my phone usage but need Whatsapp just to stay connected to friends and family.

That's going to be one of the main issues for these types of phones. The applications people really do need vary enormously. I basically just need two applications, both for work, Google Authenticator (or similar) and a specialised app from our telco that manage our on-call number. The rest I can do without.

Perhaps it's worth remembering that these "smart feature phones" aren't meant for people who just doesn't want a smart phone. They are meant for people who can't afford a real smart phone, so the feature set will creep towards being a full featured smart phone.

For those of us who genuinely do not want smartphone, there's currently not much on offer, unless we truly do not need a single smart phone feature.

I have a small set of features I'd like to see in a phone:

* Hotspot support, so both WiFi and 4G

* A TOTP application

* BlueTooth, for wireless headset and writing SMSs and managing the contacts from an application on my computer

Other than that the screen can be a black and white LCD for all I care.

I would like to have an old Nokia style phone that provides a voice activated GPS. No Facebook, no Messenger, no email.

Ugh... I check online for exactly this every 6 months to no avail. I see the same things turn up - lightphone, punkt MP01/MP02, Nokia phones with KaiOS.

I have tried using a "dumb phone", which works for 90% of what I want to do with it, but it's inconvenient when meeting a friend at a new place or exploring a new city. Similarly, I have tried using a smartphone, but I find myself in cycles where I am inevitably checking it every 5 minutes to see what new stimulus there is to hold my attention.

i hear this often. if you want a stripped-down phone and GPS, why not purchase a standalone GPS? do you use the GPS often outside of your car? honest questions.

Good handheld GPS units are expensive. Plus, you look eccentric - to say the least - carrying a handheld GPS unit in addition to your phone.

Have you considered building your own phone?

Sure it won't be very stylish - nor will it be slim - but all the parts are out there with more than enough example code to hack together exactly the phone you want.

I'm seriously considering going this route for my next phone, since 4G modules recently became more widely available and much lower in price. But even 3G would suffice for my needs. I'm just wanting a "smart phone" which I have complete control over - or close to it.

I understand not everyone has the option or skills to build such a phone, but if you do (or are interested) - google around for DIY phones based on the Raspberry Pi (especially the Zero W), or the Arduino (using a variety of processors, though the original Arduino Phone was made with an ATMega328P iirc).

For your use-case, either one of the more powerful "standard" cores could be used (ATMega2560, ATMega644, SAM3X8E) - or maybe something based off the ESP line (ESP-12 or 32 would be my choice). A small 3G GSM module, plus a GPS and maybe an IMU, some kind of keypad, and a small OLED screen or something - keep everything at a 3.7 volt level and run it off a LiPo cell(s). With a bit of luck, you could probably fit everything into something about the size of an Altoids tin.

Well good luck running all these non-native apps on them

Kinda want one just so i can beat my phone addiction.

Leading the fray is India's own Reliance JioPhone

The article is paywalled

When i first interviewed with danger, they had the hip-top.

I want one device that can do the following and only the following:

* gps

* browser

* text/mms

* camera

Nothing else.

Make it connect via data to a family console. It logs everything. Give these to all your family/kids and have them be a connected cluster.

It all logs back to a server on the home network. Backs up your shit auto.

Oh one other feature:

* walkie talkie only amongst the family group.

All data sims.... no cell.

Cell would be sip routed through the home router only.

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