Some models are damage-proof, while one is made for the elderly
Phones rugged enough to survive falling from the sky or resistant to foaming hand soap – these are just some of the special features cellphone makers are offering to appeal to niche markets.
Mobile research firm IHS head Ian Fogg said: “The smartphone market is so enormous that even having a phone that is targeting a niche can still sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions of units over its life.”
In all, he said, 1.5 billion smartphones would ship this year.
“Even a company that is targeting a fraction of a percentage can still have a product with very significant volumes.”
Several niche phones were on display at the four-day Mobile World Congress in Barcelona which wraps up today, seeking to attract markets ranging from adventure sport enthusiasts to busy moms.
Bullitt Group, a small British firm, showcased its extremely rugged phones that carry the branding of US construction giant Caterpillar and can withstand heat up to 120°C and temperatures as low as -20°C.
The devices are also waterproof and come with a thermal imaging camera.
Bullitt sells more than a million Caterpillar phones a year.
They are popular with ski instructors, builders and others with rugged jobs or who like outdoor activities. The phones have an ardent fan base. Videos posted on YouTube by satisfied customers show the devices surviving falls into fresh cement, falling down a flight of stairs or being run over by a car.
Bullitt chief executive Peter Stephens said: “We have even had one of our phones fall out of someone’s backpack when they were parachuting and land and work afterwards.
“It got banged up on the way down but it was still working.”
Bullitt plans to launch a Land Roverbranded phone later this year that targets adventurers.
The company is reluctant to reveal details but Stephens said it would have elements that appealed to someone who was away from energy sources for a very long time.
In December, Bullitt released a Kodak smartphone that features a retro design and a high-powered camera and software with exceptional tools to edit images.
“We have a huge list of niches that you could enter,” Stephens said.
Swedish telecoms firm Doro began focusing on creating easy-to-use phones for the elderly a decade ago and is now the market leader in Europe in this segment. The devices feature large icons, easy menus and loud, clear sound as well as an alarm button that can be used to alert relatives in case its user needs help.
The company also makes it possible to manage its smartphone’s settings through a web service, so that more tech-savvy friends or family can help users add contacts or adjust the device’s volume from kilometres away.
Doro marketing manager Caroline Kristensson Helin said: “We realised that there was a segment in the market that nobody was really focusing on and that has a real need.
“Seniors feel lost, they feel abandoned,” Kristensson Helin said.
Smartphones with extra-strong security measures to prevent hacking were also on display, targeting financial sector employees.
Japan’s Kyocera launched a new smartphone last month that is resistant to foaming hand soap and includes an app that allows users to scroll through recipes using just hand gestures.
The company’s general manager for strategic business planning, Takashi Nohara, said the features were convenient “for people like busy mothers”.
French firm Crosscall’s vice-president, David Eberle, said, however, that reaching customers who might be interested in a niche phone could be a challenge.
Crosscall makes phones geared for outdoor activities.
“Most users do not know that something else exists in the market,” he said.
The company sells its phones in sporting goods stores.
IHS’s Fogg said: “The real challenge for these small brands, these small niche products, is finding what volumes they need to be profitable.”