When does a dumb phone become a smartphone?

The line is blurring. A year ago, perhaps even six months ago, it was pretty easy to define the difference between a smartphone and a feature phone (or “dumb” phone).

You could point to an Android device or an iPhone and say: “There. That’s a smartphone.” Similarly, you could label any phone that retailed for less than US$100 (or R800) as “dumb”.

Today, it’s not so simple. Sure, ultra low-end phones without internet access are easy. But what about devices like the Asha range announced by Nokia at Nokia World last week?

Sure, it’s all part of Nokia’s plan to connect “the next billion”, but are these phones smart phones? Sort of. Nokia calls them “smarter” phones.

The Asha phones have third-party apps. A decent browser. Speedy processors. Support for up to 32GB memory cards. The two flagship devices have 3G, one of them even supports Wi-Fi. One has a Qwerty keyboard (Asha 200), another a touch screen (Asha 300) and one both (Asha 303). (Despite what you may think, having played with the hybrid 303 and as a BlackBerry 9900 user, the dual touch and Qwerty interface actually makes sense! There are some tasks — like launching an app — that are just easier by touching the screen…)

Add WhatsApp, 40 free EA Games, Facebook and Angry Birds.

Are these still feature phones?

Yes, there’s still a difference between an iPhone and a top-of-the-range Asha phone that costs $160. But does everyone need a Nexus phone or an iPhone? Or even a Lumia Windows Phone?

No. That’s why Nokia’s been smart. It’s got an aspirational brand in emerging markets. It makes great phones. It’s got to play in this space. More so because Apple has effectively launched a version of the iPhone for emerging markets without actually launching one. Making the iPhone 3GS free on contract (or US$375 unlocked) does the trick. And it’s still a very decent phone, especially running iOS5.

One day all phones will be smartphones.

That next billion is the important part.

* Hilton Tarrant travelled to Nokia World in London as a guest of Nokia.



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