Why Dumb Phones are the New Netbooks

They're starting to look more like smart phones, and some of them cost next to nothing. Last week AT&T rolled out a bunch of new handsets that it has categorized as quick messaging devices, like the LG Neon and Samsung Magnet. And Sprint announced a quick messaging device of its own in the Sanyo SCP-2700. What's not to like for consumers? They get a full keyboard for sending text messages and e-mail without the pricier monthly data plan smart phones require.

The Sanyo device costs only $30 with a contract, and there are rumors that at least one of AT&T's quick messaging devices will be in the same ballpark. Many of these devices don't even have 3G data, but that doesn't mean the carriers aren't trying to make so-called dumb phones smarter. Some might say too smart.

At CTIA Wireless 2009, AT&T rolled out its Apps Beta program, which lets subscribers try applications for non–smart phones before they become widely available, leading to predictions that the carrier will be rolling out its own app store. And it's a safe bet that Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless are going to shuffle their decks so that they look and feel more like Apple's storefront. If the big four are successful, the line between dumb phones and smart phones will become even more blurred.

I know what you're thinking. The e-mail and Web browsing experiences on smart phones are vastly superior to dumb ones. Smart phones have much faster processors, more memory, and generally much more polished interfaces. But consider everything else that's going on in the dumb phone space right now—new products like Yahoo Mobile Web are a one-stop shop for news, RSS feeds, e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking (although it's available for smart phones, too). And companies like SurfKitchen are gearing up to offer iPhone-like mobile widgets on mainstream handsets.

And don't forget about design. I guarantee you that when the average consumer walks into an AT&T store in the coming weeks, some of them will mistake the Magnet, with its sleek profile and full QWERTY keyboard, for a smart phone. And then they'll look at something like the Samsung Propel Pro running Windows Mobile and ask the salesperson why it costs $149. And unless that representative really knows his or her stuff, that cash-strapped customer may gravitate towards the smart-looking dumb phone.

Is any of this really bad news for consumers? Not necessarily, but dumb phones are rapidly becoming the netbooks of the wireless space. As they evolve, traditional feature phones will likely cannibalize the sales of smart phones, potentially hurting both manufacturers (especially those like HTC and RIM that specialize in smart phones) and carriers (who maybe just turned someone onto a $15 data plan instead of a $30 one).

At the same time, consumers may be disappointed in the smart phone lite experience, depending upon their expectations. There's a reason why the first wave of netbooks suffered from a high return rate.

Ultimately, these developments are good for the industry. Next-gen dumb phones will force smart phone makers, and all the major OS providers, to step up their game.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can sign up to receive this column by e-mail newsletter or follow Mark on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.