Mobile phone makers like Intex, Micromax and others not abandoning feature phones as they make comeback
NEW DELHI: This might be the era of highflying smartphones but India’s mobile phone industry isn’t writing off the humble feature phone, just yet. The basic device which lets people make calls and send messages without accessing the Internet, and being used by over half the Indian populace, is seeing a revival of sorts.
It’s just not the relatively lesser known brands like MTech and Josh that are in the business. Smartphone world leader Samsung says it continues to focus on feature phones in the rural markets of India and that the segment is an important one for it.Read more ↓
Homebred Micromax and Intex still swear by the device category that offers higher volumes and far higher margins than smartphones. Not for nothing has Itel, Africa’s leading feature phone provider, entered India recently with eight models.
These basic phones are getting smarter as well. Manufacturers are innovating in the segment with new feature sets that are relevant for present day users: bigger batteries which can act as powerbanks, selfie cameras, larger speakers to give asurround sound feel and the like.
“Very recently, we launched a model with a front camera on a feature phone which we didn’t have in the past, because consumers want to use feature phones and take selfies,” said Manu Sharma, vice president of mobile business at Samsung India. “Some basic applications are being put (into these phones) so consumers can enjoy some games, minor increments.”
For the industry, he said, feature phones still offer a big market, with sales of 9-10 million units a month in India. India’s feature phone market is about 65 per cent of the total mobile phone installed base. It had the majority share, 56 per cent, by shipments, which are phones reaching retailers for sale, in the quarter through June 2016, up from 55 per cent three months earlier.
“The rate of decline of feature phones is flattening out — first half of 2016 versus first half of 2015 was an 11 per cent decline while the on-year decline for 2015 over 2014 was 15 per cent. In fact our estimate is that in the April-June quarter, this segment may have grown by 3-4 per cent over previous quarter,” said Shubhajit Sen, chief marketing officer at Micromax Informatics.
In 2014, about 179-180 million feature phones were sold in India, which came down to 150 million last year, as per IDC data. So far this year, about 61 million such devices have been sold, which is likely to rise to 135 million by the end of 2016, indicating the slowing rate of decline. Most of the feature phones sold in India are priced between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500, analysts at IDC add. These phones are more popular in rural areas and small towns.
The feature phone market in India will continue to be significant two to three years from now, said Counterpoint Research Senior Analyst Tarun Pathak, propelled by companies bringing innovative features, consumer-centric form factors and vernacular support. Industry watchers also highlight the dual usage of smartphones and feature phones by many consumers, who use the latter for making calls and former for mobile transactions.
High-priced data packs that accompany smartphone purchase is one of the big barriers for feature phone users to give up their devices, steadying the decline rate of these basic phones. Other reasons include hesitancy in using touch screen and no obvious need for being connected to the Internet.
Top homegrown handset makers had thought of abandoning feature phones two years ago, much like other players. But they have strategically decided to keep going with the segment as it gives them massive distribution reach, right up to the hinterlands, and large volumes. About 45-50 per cent of Micromax’s monthly phone sales comes from feature phones.
Industry insiders said while competition in smartphones is putting massive pressure on margins, feature phones offer much higher operating margins of 15-20 per cent. “Feature phone business has been growing consistently, I see no reason why we should leave it,” said Narendra Bansal, promoter of Intex Technologies, India’s No. 3 smartphone player.
The Delhi-based company has 60 per cent of its portfolio from feature phones. A feature phone user prefers to have long battery life and loud speaker in their devices. Therefore, it plans to come out with models which have larger memory to store movies and songs. Some models would come with water resistance and tough build quality.
Sudhir Kumar, head of Itel in India, said the company plans to launch 14 more feature phone models by December, besides 14 smartphones.