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Android and the future of feature phones

CNET editor Nicole Lee ponders Android's role in the future of feature phones, and looks at one handset that offers the benefits of a feature phone while giving a taste of Android.

The LG Optimus T was one of the first entry-level Android smartphones to have us thinking that feature phones might be dead.
The LG Optimus T was one of the first entry-level Android smartphones to have us thinking feature phones might be dead. Josh P. Miller/CNET

When the LG Optimus T and Optimus S phones were announced last year, I genuinely felt for the first time that feature phones were a dying breed. Both of these Optimus handsets were branded as entry-level smartphones, but had very impressive features--they shipped with Android 2.2 Froyo (the latest OS update at the time), had portable Wi-Fi hot spots, and of course the usual Android features like robust e-mail and Google app support.

Sure, they weren't as advanced as their higher-end cousins--no Flash support, no HD video, and so on--but for $30 or less, these phones were an absolute steal. Considering that some feature phones are selling for more than twice that price for far fewer features, it seemed that smartphones were finally affordable enough that everyone could get one. Furthermore, the Android interface is not that difficult to navigate, making the usability factor almost a nonissue.

But there are two important barriers to entry when it comes to smartphone adoption: data plans and contracts. Almost every carrier requires some kind of data plan to go along with its smartphones, while feature phones tend to escape such confines. Also, smartphone contracts tend to be more expensive to get out of, with early termination fees in the $200-$300 range depending on how early on you want to exit the contract. Because of these restrictions, feature phones still continue to be popular with the mainstream despite the smartphone craze that tends to dominate the tech news circuit.

Which is why the Motorola i886 is such an interesting handset. The i886 is billed as a feature phone with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but when we first took a look at the i886's interface, we were amazed at how Android-like it was. Everything from the customizable home screens to the main menu has the typical Android interface.

The Motorola i886 has home screens and menus that have a definite Android look and feel.
The Motorola i886 has home screens and menus with a definite Android look and feel. Josh P. Miller/CNET

However, Motorola was firm in saying it wasn't Android, and that it was a proprietary Linux-based OS. More importantly, the i886 doesn't meet basic Android standards: it doesn't have a touch screen, and it doesn't have access to the Android Market, so it can't technically be called an Android phone.

And yet, it IS an Android phone. We dug around in the phone's settings and discovered that according to the phone's open-source licenses, it runs using Android code.

Yes, it has been modified to fit within the i886's hardware restrictions, but it's certainly Android at the heart of it. When you think about it, this is a very smart move by Motorola. Android is open-source, after all, and manufacturers don't have to spend a lot of resources coming up with their own code.

Additionally, using Android allows the i886 to have excellent e-mail and Exchange features that other feature phones lack. Plus, we much prefer the sleeker Android interface over the usually clunky Motorola/Nextel menus.

A screenshot of the Motorola i886's Open source licenses that shows it uses Android Code.
A screenshot of the Motorola i886's open-source licenses that shows it uses Android code. Josh P. Miller/CNET

There's been talk of Android trickling down to feature phones before. We heard late last year that LG would be switching its LG enV series of feature phones over to Android with the rumored LG enV Touch 2, for example. But the supposed enV Touch 2 seems to be more of an entry-level smartphone than a true feature phone. The Motorola i886, with its lack of an app store, touch screen, robust Web browser, and required data plan puts it squarely in feature phone territory.

The question is, why would you get it if it lacks so many features? The answer depends on what you want from a phone. If all you want is the ability to make calls, send and receive occasional texts and e-mails, and enjoy modest multimedia support, feature phones are usually enough. And like we said above, feature phones don't require expensive data plans like most smartphones.

With the Motorola i886, you get the benefits of a feature phone while getting a taste of Android. We won't be surprised if more and more feature phones adopt Android or some version of it in the future. Indeed, this is perhaps what all future feature phones will look and feel like. And who knows, if you like the interface enough, you might be willing to upgrade to an actual Android smartphone one day. That is perhaps what Motorola, and Google, is counting on.