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Dumb Phones Still Dominate Smartphones ... For Now

Tin can phone

 (iStock)

Androids are awesome, iPhones impressive ... but dumbphones still dominate.

In the last few years, mobile phones have become status symbols. Use a fancy one and people will think you’re cool. Use a more traditional one and folks stare as though you just pulled up to the party in a Buick.

That explains Susan Andersen’s sheepishness when asked what kind of phone she uses. “I’m still in the dark ages of cell phones,” the Los Angeles mother of three admits. “Of all my friends and family -- even my own mother -- I’m the only one that uses a dumbphone.”

Andersen isn't alone.

You wouldn’t know it by watching the incoming wired generation or the millions of mobile warriors who stare at their smartphones all day, but Andersen is in the majority of Americans who use what the industry more elegantly refers to as a “feature phone.” In fact, she’s part of the overwhelming majority.

Of the 234 million cell phone users in America last year, a dominating 73 percent own traditional (aka non-smart) devices, according to market researcher comScore. Despite their more popular mindshare, intelligent devices like the Apple iPhone and phones based on Google's Android operating system own barely a quarter of the market. 

What's the difference between a dumbphone and a do-almost-anything Swiss Army smartphone? 

“Traditionally, the industry has defined smartphones as being Blackberry OS, iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, WebOS, and a few other modern mobile operating systems,” Nick DiCarlo, director of product planning for Samsung Mobile, told FoxNews.com.

In laymen’s terms, that means app-ready devices, those capable of downloading and running programs on demand. Another distinguishing feature is either a physical or touch-screen keyboard and a data plan to download and connect to the Internet with -- although many dumbphones have web browsers as well. 

Other than ring tones, dumbphones can’t download stuff; they just place calls and send text messages. And for most Americans, that's all that really matters.

“Not everyone wants or needs all that power,” said Ross Miller, self-proclaimed technophile and associate editor at popular tech blog Engadget. “And they certainly don’t want the additional monthly bill,” which can cost upwards of $30-50 extra, depending on the web service.

In addition to the cost factor, things like simplicity, expendability and the convenient small size sold Andersen on a dumbphone. “It’s simple,” she said of her unglamorous T-Mobile phone, “and I don’t have to worry about breaking it.” Andersen frets that if she breaks a $400-500 smartphone, she could easily break the bank too. 

“It’s also a lot smaller and lighter than the over-sized smartphones my friends carry,” she said.

Still, smartphones are gaining fast. This year alone, they are expected to eclipse 100 million active users in America. And that leads to cannibalization of the dumbphone market, experts warn. 

“Samsung is shifting its portfolio as the market moves towards smartphones,” DiCarlo said. As a sign of the times, “usage of voice-only services on a mobile phone is now a minority of the total user base.”

What’s more, cell phone carriers may eventually abandon dumbphones altogether, thanks in part to the more lucrative data plans they now sell, which are often required to use nicer devices -- even if consumers don’t want the pricey mobile Internet on their phone. 

In that sense, the writing’s on the wall -- even for fans of phones that just work. “I think everyone will have a smartphone within five years,” Andersen predicts, noting that much of her generation already has made the switch. But the trade off will come with repercussions, she believes.

“I was on a plane last week and everyone played with their phones the entire flight,” she recalls. “There were oblivious to the world around them. I’m not saying there aren’t any advantages to smartphones, because there obviously are. But there’s more to life than apps and games.”

Something a smartphone user should understand, perhaps.

Blake Snow is a freelance journalist, media consultant, and smartphone user on a dumbphone network. You can follow, request feedback, and shower him with praise via his website