Your Users’ SMS Phones Are Dumber Than Donald Trump’s

Verify users identities using two-factor SMS messaging from RingCaptcha.

Were you shocked to read that the President of the United States was Tweeting with an unsecured Samsung Android phone? Well, here’s a reality check for you: At least half of of the world’s mobile phone users have even simpler devices.

That’s because these devices don’t qualify as smartphones. Manufacturers politely call them feature phones, but users tend to refer to them as flip phones or, in techier markets, dumb phones.

At one point that term might have been pejorative, but more recently it’s taken on a kind of retro chic. Vendors are even tapping into this phenomenon by releasing new dumb phones for people who don’t want to be distracted by Internet access and application downloads.

SMS Device Dominance

And despite everything the smartphone industry proclaims about a looming extinction of feature phones, these simpler devices still dominate the mobile phone market in many developing countries.

Yes, people are shifting from dumb to smart phones in most — but not all — countries, but where it’s happening the pace varies from one region to the next, according to eMarketer.

RingCaptcha has the best SMS user authentication in the world
There are more SMS-capable mobile devices than people in the world, with subscribers having an average of two connected devices apiece, according to GMSA, the mobile provider industry alliance.

Even in the U.S., around 15% of the mobile market is still using feature phones, accoding to research by Ben Bajarin, principal analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc.

Why No Smartphone?

Bajarin polled feature phone users in the U.S. and when he asked why they didn’t own a smartphone, the most popular response was:

They simply aren’t interested. They understand the benefits, they don’t find them too hard to use, they don’t want to be bothered by the costs and, when it comes right down to it, they don’t believe they are worth it…

Most non-smartphone owners in our panel have owned their current feature phone for three or four years, and said they have no intention of replacing it for another two or three years…

We can directly tie price paid… to usage of the product.. For a consumer who is very price-conscious, like the non-smartphone owner, they have no intention of using the increased capabilities so see no need to pay for it.

Free Phones

These devices are typically free when you sign up for a new cellphone contract and don’t require any data subscriptions.

Sometimes the flip-phone users are truly strapped for cash and lack insurance coverage, but others are deliberately trying to tune out distractions or “go retro.” And a growing number actually use tablets for texting and apps, but use feature phones to make calls, according to Forrester Research, as cited by Time magazine.

The larger pattern, of course, is that there are an estimated 7.5 billion mobile connections and 3.7 billion unique subscribers in the world, as tallied by GMSA, the mobile provider industry alliance.

By that tally, just over half of the world’s population has a mobile device — and each subscriber has an average of two devices.

Not So Fast

Mobile phone companies are forecasting that the rest of the world might get mobile devices within the next three years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these adoptions will be smartphones — especially when you look at other relevant trends.

For starters, some of the cell phones are shared among more than one individual in emerging markets, with parties only being able to use the device part of the time, according to research by Pew Internet.

Furthermore, 10% percent of the world still lacks access to basic voice and text services, while a third lack access to 3G or 4G mobile broadband Internet, according to the Computer Technology Association.

Rural Areas

Most of the populations lacking coverage lie in rural regions in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, “which together account for 3.4 billion of the 4.8 billion people not yet connected to the Internet,” said Computer Technology Association. “It’s worth noting that most of those cell phones in Africa are what we’d call basic or feature phones.”  

RingCaptcha designed this chart showing SMS mobile phone users based on data from Statista
About half of SMS mobile phone users might be smartphones, according to this RingCaptcha chart using data from Statista.

All of this data suggests that feature phones might not be an endangered species at all — more like the furthest thing from it. As recently as 2011, non-smartphones accounted for about 70% of mobile phone sales, according to Gartner, Inc.

So, remember that thriftiness among these users might motivate them to keep the devices longer, and that explains the following data point. About half of mobile phone users might be smartphone owners by 2019, says a forecast by Statista. Indeed, those feature phones will still be around for a while.

What This Means for SMS Authentication

So what does all of this mean for user authentication? First of all, sending SMS messages to authenticate users involves the same amount of basic security exposure regardless of whether you’re communicating with smartphones or dumb phones.

Secondly, the simplicity of the feature phone actually has an element of built-in safety. The limited processing power and storage space on the device means it can’t be subjected to hacks that involve software downloads, including keylogging, Trojan horses and worms.

That can make these devices’ inability to download or install security software seem like less of an inconvenience — especially when you consider that most people are not communicating high-security information on their phone.

SMS Is a Vast Set of Data

When you use SMS to transmit messages, you become part of a vast set of data — amounting to a billion or more per day. Finding your message in particular would require an extreme amount of technology resources that wouldn’t be worth the expense and effort unless you were a “person of interest” in one way or another.

And that’s why SMS continues to work so well for both normal communications and to deliver one-time passwords — where there’s enough cellular network coverage to support that. In developing parts of the world, reaching people on feature phones requires an old-fashioned phone call — just as you would do to authenticate users on land lines.

All of these things are what RingCaptcha includes in its user verification product, which includes 23 languages and 32 different back-end processors. To learn more about this, please click here.

  • Evie Smith

    Becoming part of a vast set of data and hoping that the statistical odds will play out in your favor is kind of zen — it’s hoping things will work out for the best. Or it’s like risk managing whether to spend the money on a technology upgrade or just go with what you already have.