Where are all the feature phones?

Dom Corriveau

Dom Corriveau

Between the studies of smartphone access and privacy invading social media articles many people have in some way attempted to reduce their reliance on the small computer in their pocket. Often, the goal is to reduce the "addiction". The correlation is simple, if we all reduce the amount of time we spend on social media and swiping mindlessly on our phones we'll be happier, be more productive and in general, be a better person. Overlooked in this lifestyle are the people who can't afford to be addicted to a premium high-end handset and live the feature phone life everyday.

I've always been fascinated with the movement to reduce, but not for some personal gain or to recover a portion of my life back. For the last 5 years I've been heavily focused on being a prepper. Not in the traditional sense, in no way to I have the fortitude to be a full-blown doomsday prepper. My prepping is for a financial apocalypse that could strike my family, the type of catastrophe that hit many families in the housing crisis of 2008 and caught millions off guard. With a single income below the national average we've always been tight on money. The potential for disaster having only one income keeps me on high alert at all times.

My fascination with prepping leads me constantly to living more minimally. One of those ways is to reduce my mobile device to a "dumb phone" with limited or no data. A few years ago we switched to a MVNO carrier that has saved us significant money, but I always feel like we could do more. Since I repair and reuse so much tech, finding a low end device that is functional is something I spend a fair amount of time researching.

Over the last two weeks I've been looking through all of the possible feature phones I could use with my MVNO carrier and the real challenge has been not finding a quality device at a reasonable price. The problem is finding any device.

Spending $50 in a pinch

In the US there are options for both feature phones and low end smartphones, such as any device running the Android Go operating system. Reading blogs and sites that have recommendations is hard to find anyone recommending Android Go phones without several caveats. Spending $100 - $150 doesn't seem worth it for a severely handicapped phone that fails to deliver around every corner.

The main issue I keep seeing is in the US there really aren't that many options for feature phones. If running Android, even if its an optimized version specifically made for under-powered devices, isn't worth it then let me see my options for feature phones. Before getting into the types of devices that are obtainable in the rest of the world and what kind of device I'd like to spend $50 on, lets first look at what it takes to spend that money for someone on a real budget.

Back in 2016 a survey showed approximately 46% of households couldn't cover a $400 emergency. That's equivalent to about 1/3 of an iPhone for those keeping track. For me, there have been several instances where even finding $50 would have been a significant challenge. This means if my device were to stop working, which in our modern economy is a mild emergency, there was no way I could buy a new smartphone. Some people would suggest scrimping and saving up to buy a better device like a $200 Moto G6. But at this level saving money each month isn't an option. It would take a better part of 6 months to come up with that kind of money and that amount of time without a device isn't an option.

Spending $50 on a device needs to be at least a survivable expense. Who knows when a free $50 might become available so wasting it on a device you immediately regret stings more to some than others.

What are the options?

To sum it up in two words: Flip phones. Yes, the clamshell devices that in reality are best served for grandparents who don't have a home phone, those flip phones. There are lots of people who prefer that kind of device and I'm happy the market supports them. In some cases for as little as $5 you can get a flip phone on a prepaid carrier at your local mega-mart. What I'm looking for is a feature phone. Feature phones are extremely common around the world and have made big gains in both power and usefulness in the last 3 years.

The biggest standout is the JioPhone. Available in India, the JioPhone is a feature phone with some smartphone capabilities but the real star is the operating system under the hood. KAI OS which is a fork of the now defunct Firefox OS which has an app store that includes "lite" version of apps including YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Far from perfect, having some connection to apps used by millions (and in some cases billions) of people make using an ultra low-end device possible.

Yes using Facebook on a device with 512 mb of RAM is painful. But the option is there. Its also evident these companies are able to create an app that isn't bloated and stuffed with features no one uses or wants. The point is that the device doesn't need full Android or iOS and it doesn't need access to a huge app store. All it needs is a handful of very popular apps while being reliable. Jio and Kai OS are far from perfect, but its the exact kind of options I want here in the US.

Final thoughts

One of the best reasons to give Linux a shot is to resuscitate aging PC's. Whether its for speed or security (or both) its something the x86 market has enjoyed for some time now and is in desperate need on mobile devices. Although I many be clamoring for decent feature phones to come to the US what I really want is an open-source operating system to rescue aging mobile devices. Even if it turned the old smartphones into feature phones, a la installing KAI OS, this would still be a better option than our current situation.

The horsepower on modern phones is far beyond what the app ecosystem can support. Phones with 64-bit processors and 6 GB of RAM can last for a very long time if only OEM's would support them with security updates past the average 3 year lifespan (or planned obsolescence). If the hardware on these devices had open drivers and unlocked bootloaders to allow any operating system to be installed, just like nearly all PC's (I'm aware not all hardware vendors open-source their drivers, looking at you Broadcom) then a healthy ecosystem of varied devices could exist.

The duopoly of mobile OS's we have just doesn't cut it. For the time being it would be amazing if we could get some decent feature phones to fill the gap. In the end, I hope a real open platform comes as the hardware market reaches full maturity.

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