Sinan Kurtulmuş

Thoughts on Feature Phones and KaiOS

Sinan Kurtulmuş

November, 2020

It is my understanding that feature phones are making a bit of a comeback. I happen to have one of these devices, which I have used for over a year. I want to talk about my experience with it.

Why Consider Using a Feature Phone?

Alcatel 3088 - Feature Phone
These devices sit somewhere in between older cell phones and modern smartphones. They have the push-button interface which has mostly fallen out of fashion in favor of touchscreens, even though they borrow some of their design elements from contemporary touchscreen devices (which really only makes it harder to push the buttons, and effectively use the device, but more on that later). Despite that, it is possible to gain internet access with them using the 3G/4G network technologies. If the phone is running an operating system called KaiOS - which is now the third most popular mobile operating system, running on more than 100 million devices - it is also possible to send and receive e-mail, check the weather forecast, or use popular services/applications such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Youtube, even though they are not fully-featured.

There are some reasons people choose to own and use one of these devices over a smartphone. First of all, they are fairly cheap because of their hardware with much lower specifications, but they aim to provide most of the features that the regular user would expect to get from a smartphone. This is why many people who can not afford high-end smartphones choose to buy feature phones "with smart features". Secondly, they have significantly improved battery life compared to many smartphones, even though they can not compete with older phones, which could go weeks without a recharge. Finally, they are not exactly smartphones. I believe that this is of particular importance, since there exists a growing number of people who want to move away from the use of smartphones - or "smart" devices in general - because they think that it is, for the most part, detrimental. In this regard, breaches in digital safety, security and privacy come to mind, as well as concerns about the general direction in which technologically enhanced societal living is headed. It is important to consider how well these issues could be mitigated by the use of feature phones.

What to Expect from the Device Itself

I actually did not switch from using a smartphone to using a feature phone; I switched to a feature phone, because my older cell phone stopped working. In light of that, my expectations were quite low. What I needed was a small and durable device, which could reliably make phone calls, send text messages and not cause any distractions. I settled on an Alcatel 3088. It is not my intention to present a detailed review of this product, however I would like to mention a few points.

Ericsson T65 - A More Practical and Functional Design
Feature phone devices, while being much smaller than smartphones, are significantly larger in size compared to older phones, and I don't feel like this is justified. However, what is really bizarre is that this phone in particular looks and feels a lot like a smartphone. The front and the back sides are almost completely flat, and the screen - in my opinion - is much bigger than it needs to be. This choice makes it unnecessariliy hard to get a good grip of the device in order to push the buttons in an ergonomically sound way, and the whole effort to achieve a more "modern" look and feel comes at a great cost to usability. Many newer feature phones actually exhibit similar design elements, whereas with older cell phones, one could see that practicality was a bigger concern.

The Operating System: KaiOS

Nowadays, many feature phones come with KaiOS preinstalled, which is a web-based mobile operating system, forked from B2G OS (which in turn is a fork of the discontinued Firefox OS by Mozilla) and based on the Linux kernel. In my experience, it is not the most stable operating system out there. The performance in general is subpar. Updates tend to make it even worse, and the fact that it runs web applications written in Javascript really doesn't help. Perhaps most importantly, it is largely a privacy nightmare.

The growing interest in "non-smart" solutions for daily communications by digital means is in part due to the increasing number of privacy-conscious users in light of the current state of data collection and surveillance practices by a handful of big tech companies. Unfortunately, in this regard, KaiOS is as poor a choice as it gets. It comes preinstalled with a plethora of applications including Facebook and the KaiOS Store as well as the Google Assistant, Google Maps, Google Search and Youtube applications developed by Google, from which KaiOS has received a $22M investment. Moreover, the user does not have root access on the phone by default, and the Google applications can not be removed, even with root access, unless you are willing to basically hack into your own phone, and remove the said applications every time after the phone updates and reinstalls them. I myself have completed this process once, removing the Google applications which were never used and/or configured, and effectively doubled the battery life on the phone as a result. I leave it to the reader to form his or her opinion on what the purposes of these applications are, and on which tasks they could be performing on a personal device, in their uninitialized states, without the express consent of the user. Privacy-wise, the only advantage of phones running KaiOS is that they usually have removable batteries, unlike most smartphones.

Other difficulties might arise when trying to interface with a KaiOS phone, which is unfortunate as there is a compelling argument that this should have been prioritized, since users might more often that not need to connect to other devices in order to extract data or perform various tasks, given the computational limitations of feature phones. KaiOS is similar to Google's Android mobile operating system in how it tries to facilitate secure user interactions, and borrows some of its implementations. Normally, users can only download and install applications using the preinstalled application store. "Sideloading" applications from another device is an involved process, which requires multiple software tools, and may or may not be achievable depending on the device. In order for it to work, the device in question must be capable of enabling USB debugging through the use of adb (Android Debug Bridge). It is also needed to download a very old version of Pale Moon or Firefox (a bad idea for various reasons), or download the KaiOS simulator, which is available on Linux but not on BSDs or the various versions of Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Transferring files from a KaiOS phone is also complicated. The system does not allow users to send files that are bigger than 10 MB over bluetooth or e-mail. The device storage can only be accessed through the Media Transfer Protocol, which is a solid security measure to have, but it requires an MTPfs installation on the connected computer.

All things considered, it would be fair to say that KaiOS users are unable to make full use of the many features that feature phones have to offer. Users are not allowed to have root access on their own devices, remove certain applications or install others, and they are locked out of most of the filesystem. Feature phones, while they have their drawbacks, are remarkably capable devices for their prices. However, they are crippled by the software that runs on them.

Final Thoughts

Obtaining a feature phone, perhaps with KaiOS on it, might be a tempting idea for various reasons. Despite all the aforementioned points, for individuals who can not afford a smartphone at the moment but absolutely need to use services like Whatsapp, KaiOS-powered feature phones might be the best bet. Nevertheless, it is crucial to be aware of the disadvantages. For individuals who just want to stop using smartphones because they feel that they are addicted, and that their productivity and social life are hindered, a device like this might again be beneficial, because it would simply be unable to steal the attention of the user for extended periods of time - like smartphones are designed to do - due to its limitations. Even though, feature phones still do have many features that could potentially be time-consuming. Using an older phone - or not using a mobile phone at all - should prove to be a much better option in this regard. For privacy reasons, it would be safe to assume that KaiOS phones are no better than smartphones running Android or iOS.