Millions of first-time internet consumers from the Ivory Coast to India and Indonesia are connecting to the web on a new breed of device that only costs about $25. The gadgets look like the inexpensive Nokia Corp. NOK +1.07% phones that were big about two decades ago. But these hybrid phones, fueled by inexpensive mobile data, provide some basic apps and internet access in addition to calling and texting.
Smart feature phones, as they are known, are one of the mobile-phone industry’s fastest-growing and least-known segments, providing a simple way for some of the world’s poorest people to enter the internet economy.
While global smartphone sales began sliding last year as markets became saturated, smart feature phone shipments tripled to around 75 million from 2017, according to research firm Counterpoint. Some 84 million are likely to be shipped this year.
Even as rich nations start to roll out 5G technologies, some 3.4 billion people around the world remain cut off from the internet, according to We Are Social, another research firm. Most of them already use traditional, unconnected mobile phones, meaning they can easily make the transition to similarly shaped devices capable of high-speed web connections.
Take the case of Kamlesh Kumar, who makes about $80 a month selling mangoes, avocados and lychees off the sidewalk in New Delhi.