Feature Phones, An Interesting Observation

The other day, I ran across a video by EEVBlog’s Dave Jones. “That crazy Aussie Bloke” on YouTube.  It was a Tear down Tuesday tear down of the LG 800g.  This isn’t a review of that particular phone, but considering the guy who donated it only paid $5 for the phone, I became interested in it and searched YouTube for some reviews of the phone to get a better look at it.  Dave’s tear down is more about the innards of the device rather than the functionality, so I watched a few review videos to see what $5 can buy these days as far as a feature phone is concerned.

These days, most folks (sans most, but not all, old folks and some techno-phobes) have a smartphone.  The iconic iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy phone, or any number of lesser phones by Motorola, HTC, or a plethora of Chinese knock off android phones.  It’s actually pretty amazing what can happen in 7 years since Apple redefined the smartphone.  Nearly everyone these days packs a smartphone.

The LG 800g is anything but a smartphone.  It’s ultra low powered, probably along the lines of 25 to 30 Mhz processor, and has all the typical specs of a typical feature phone.  GPRS/Edge support, 240×218 display, SD card support, etc.  Nothing to write home about.

However, the one observation I had was that despite having the balls of a typical feature phone with a slow processor and limited specs, the simple addition of (a shitty) resistive touch screen and some touch screen interface coding, they turned a shitty feature phone into a much better device.  One that’s much easier to navigate, similar to today’s smartphones.  Yes, the screen resolution sucks, the touch screen sucks, everything about the phone sucks compared to today’s smartphone, but the point is, years ago, when we all had shitty, hard to navigate low end feature phones, we could have had a much better experience, even with the lower end technology.

Another example I ran across while researching this article is the Motorola ex124g, a similar device, but it seems to be a bit more powerful CPU.  I find it surprising that despite the technology of the day existed to make much better, easier to navigate phones that it took until the iPhone came along to redefine cell phone input and navigation.  While we wouldn’t have had the powerhouses we have now in our pockets with specs closer to our desktops than our old feature phones with amazing capabilities and every bell and whistle you can find in a modern smartphone like GPS, barometer, NFC, etc. we certainly could have at least had cell phones with much more capability than they had with the old chocolate bar form factor and tiny low resolution screens that were so pervasive back in the day.

About the only reason I can come up with is that back when the feature phone reined supreme, the vast majority of them ran MediaTek processors running  the Nucleous OS that was so popular back in the day.  That OS was laid out such that a manufacturer would simply layout the menus with what features they wanted, but the actual “form factor” of the OS was the same phone to phone.  A small screen with some icons, and a 4 way pad and center button for navigation.  For whatever reason, one handed operation seemed more important than functionality or ease of use.

In the end though, there are a number of feature phone spec’d phones out there these days that pack a more smartphone like interface, and are much easier to use and navigate than any feature phone from the pre-iPhone days.  It just goes to show that there’s innovation, and there’s there’s the status quo, and it’s clear that most companies out there are content with the status quo, and are concerned about making money more than they are about innovating a better product.  Interestingly, Apple, the company that’s more concerned with innovation than in making money is the one who makes more money than anyone else because if you innovate well enough, you’ll own the market, and make the money.

By John