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Feature Phones Are Back?

MADISON, Wis. — The mobile market has a strange way of refreshing old products and making them new. A case in point is the so-called Bluetooth dialer.

A sleek handset — strangely resembling Nokia's erstwhile candy bar phone but much skinner — is reportedly getting traction in China.

Technically, this isn't a phone. Called a Bluetooth dialer, it helps a user to dial up or receive a call without whipping out a bulky tablet or phablet from his/her bag.

You think maybe this is a ho-hum product? Technically speaking, there’s nothing new here, right?

Bluetooth dialer for mobile phones. (Source: Shenzhen Migoal Technology Co. Ltd.)

Bluetooth dialer for mobile phones.
(Source: Shenzhen Migoal Technology Co. Ltd.)

But when MediaTek's president talked about Bluetooth dialers during a one-on-one interview with EE Times at this month's International CES, I confess that I was intrigued. So, I blurted out my question: “You mean feature phones are back?”

Bluetooth dialers don't come with a modem. With just this device, you can't actually dial anybody.

And yet, combined with a phablet or tablet, the Bluetooth dialer assumes all the elements (look and feel, convenience) of a feature phone.

From what I gather, some innovative Chinese OEMs are beginning to add more features to Bluetooth dialers. I'm sure they don’t see the irony: a stripped-down Bluetooth dialer is suffering from feature creep, getting smarter and getting fatter.

But think about it. Bluetooth dialers aren't much different from many of the smart watches that are emerging. The only difference is whether you wear it on your wrist or keep it in your shirt pocket.

Otherwise, such basic functions as answering a call, dialing numbers, and displaying e-mail notifications are already there both in smart watches and Bluetooth dialers. It's not hard to imagine smart-watch SoCs soon being embedded inside a Bluetooth dialer, or vice versa.

MediaTek's new “all-in-one” SoC dubbed Aster, introduced at the CES, could in fact become the driver for both next-generation Bluetooth dialers and smart watches.

Housed in a 5.4mm x 6mm package, Aster is integrated with ARM7 ESJ, Bluetooth 4.0/Bluetooth Low Energy, power management unit and memory (4Mbytes of flash and 4Mbytes of SRAM). MediaTek is pitching it as the “smallest SoC” with “highest integration” for wearables.

MediaTek shows off a smart watch based on the company's Aster wearable SoC at the CES.

MediaTek shows off a smart watch based on the company's Aster wearable SoC at the CES.

A prototype demonstrated by MediaTek came in the shape of a smart watch (shown above). But the chip can be an engine for any wearable device — or for Bluetooth dialers.

Because Aster also provides a comprehensive Application Framework, MediaTek Run-time Environment, which allows users to install and upgrade apps, it's a snap to run apps on wearable devices, according to MediaTek. One MediaTek representative, demonstrating its smart watch prototype, noted that the smart watch can also remotely trigger a smartphone (or phablet) to take pictures.

I haven't seen or heard of any uptick for Bluetooth dialers in the United States.

But one thing is clear. While we are still debating over here in the United States the usability issue of hand-held phablets, the Chinese market is moving at warp speed to create not only the phablet market but also demand for Bluetooth dialers, which could end up in the resurgence of… well, slimmed-down feature phones. Call it back-to-the-futurism.

This article was originally published on EE Times .

1 comment on “Feature Phones Are Back?

  1. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    January 31, 2014

    A few years ago i went out to find aphone that was “just a phone” and it was impossible. I found myself paying for features i didn't intend to use. It was really frustrating. I think there is a market for this kind of thing…

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