In September 2011 IDC reported sales of smartphones had overtaken feature phones for the first time in Western Europe, ushering in an era of dominance for the black rectangular devices that persists to this day.

However, with negative headlines around the ills of social media, a trend of doom scrolling (browsing social media feeds) and a desire for digital detox, there has been an increasing drive from companies including Nokia licensee Human Mobile Devices (HMD) in trying to capitalise on a potential resurgence for the lower-tier category.  

Of course, there are plenty of markets across the world where these types of devices still sell well given the relatively low cost, long battery life and other qualities associated with these handsets.

Today’s so-called dumb phones are also not as basic as they once were, with some sporting much better cameras than their predecessors and offering access to 4G. Some even support basic apps including WhatsApp.

In developed smartphone markets, though, it is still very rare to see a feature phone in the wild despite some broadly positive statements from advocates.

In a blog published in 2023, Counterpoint Research declared the US feature phone market had staged a comeback on the back of a digital detox drive from people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. It expected sales in the category of around 2.8 million units, with this expected to remain stable in the near term.

Aside from escaping the digital world, it noted a market in the B2B segment due to their retail price and the need for “cheap, disposable” phones from tourists and other cost-conscious consumers.

In Western Europe, CCS Insight predicts around 2 million units to be shipped in 2024, with the company’s chief analyst Ben Wood telling Mobile World Live (MWL) this was expected to remain “relatively stable at this level for the foreseeable future”.

“We are not seeing increased demand for feature phones, but we have noted that the category is holding share when we had previously expected its continued decline,” he added. “It is hard to pinpoint exactly what is causing this, but the extensive media coverage around the digital detox movement could be a factor”.

A Nokia feature phone featuring a classic keypad design and a colorful display screen showing a digital graphic.

“Also, given feature phones are relatively inexpensive, it is not prohibitive to try a device for a short period, even if it ultimately ends up in a drawer gathering dust when it becomes apparent living without a smartphone is very challenging”.

Markets cited by Wood as opportunities for the segment include for parents to give to children as their first device and for specific events such as music festivals, given their battery life.

“The easier-to-use design also appeals to older” people, he added. “But that market opportunity is declining as older users are now far more comfortable using a smartphone”.

HMD has been heavily pushing its feature phones this year. At MWC it unveiled a forthcoming Barbie-branded flip-phone in collaboration with toymaker Mattel. This was followed last month by a promotional “boring phone” made for Heineken and a range of Nokia-branded devices, including a 25th anniversary edition of the 3210.

Its announcements have been surrounded by messaging around digital detoxing, albeit with each launch aimed at a slightly different demographic.

HMD global head of insight, proposition and product Adam Ferguson told MWL it had seen a “real resurgence in feature phones over the last couple of years” in Europe and the US, emphasising the sales of some of its classic Nokia clamshell devices had doubled.

Having identified a trend of young adults feeling overwhelmed by social media, he explained the company had moved its positioning towards “digital detox and helping people with mental health”.

“One of the things we’ve seen coming through in the data is a younger audience, the 16 to 34 age group, are really trying to detach from social media. Sometimes it’s just for an hour to get away from those notifications”.

The market here, he indicated, was largely in providing an auxiliary device able to provide a “mental health shield” for certain times and occasions.

Ferguson conceded it is unlikely users aged between 16 and 34 would ditch their smartphones entirely in favour of a feature phone, even though it could “happen in some cases”.

“Some people will have made [that] heavier transition, but then you have questions as to what happens if you need a rideshare app, or use some of the great functionality smartphones bring that a feature phone doesn’t. I think there’s an interesting future there for a category that is able to meet those needs while also taking a step away from social media”.    

Wood noted although consumers were “becoming increasingly addicted to their smartphones”, giving momentum to the digital detox movement, a feature phone as a solution was “a pretty blunt instrument given the essential role the smartphone plays in most people’s daily lives”.

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A switch to a feature phone might sound appealing but in reality could prove a very frustrating experience

Ben Wood, chief analyst CCS Insight

“The dependence on smartphones for numerous daily functions such as banking, WhatsApp messaging, photography and more means that a switch to a feature phone might sound appealing, but in reality could prove a very frustrating experience,” he added.

Smart-looking but essentially boring
HMD isn’t the only company seeking to serve the digital detox market, or even the only player using the Boring Phone brand.

Alongside myriad feature phone manufacturers, New Zealand-based start-up BoringPhone sells customised Xiaomi smartphones which have been dumbed-down to remove applications including internet browsers, social media and online games. Its devices have been financed using a crowdfunding platform.   

The company’s co-founder Alex Davidson said it had seen interest from distinct groups. “The most obvious is parents with children who are at an age where they want a smartphone, but the parent is quite understandably concerned about handing over a full internet connected device to a child”.

“The other group is educated people aged over 35 who can remember being an adult before smartphones and are slightly annoyed at themselves for being sucked into their devices all the time,” he added.

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The harder big tech works to pull people into spending more time on their devices, the stronger the pull away is going to become.

Alex Davidson, co-founder BoringPhone

In terms of markets for devices without the modern trappings of social media, he added the “harder big tech works to pull people into spending more time on their devices, the stronger the pull away is going to become”.

“I believe that devices that respect user time and attention, provided ethically and with honesty, will one day become the norm, and devices that pretend to be free but show you ads all the time will be the niche product”.

Given all the negative publicity in recent years on issues such as social media addiction, it would be no surprise to see the emergence of toned-down smartphones, as both Davidson and Ferguson suggest.

If a feature phone can give a person headspace there are clearly advantages to substituting one in for a smartphone but, as Wood emphasises, diving back into a feature phone full time will likely cause a range of issues in today’s connected world.