Google is showing signs that it might take a bigger interest in the feature phone market, at least according to a couple of entries in Chromium Gerrit discovered by 9to5Google, indicating that a "touchless" mode for the Chrome mobile browser is in development.
There are a couple of key bits of evidence suggesting that the touchless control method is meant for feature phones as opposed to other device categories. Specifically, the Gerrit entry includes a couple of screenshots depicting the YouTube home page featuring "Explore" and "Options" labels at the bottom of the screen.
The location of these labels suggests that they should be linked with the two physical buttons which are usually found above the "call" and "end call" keys on a feature phone's keyboard – or at least the majority of feature phones that follow this particular design language.
Additionally, the screenshots showcase three zoom control labels which seem to be connected to the "1," "2" and "3" physical keys on a feature phone's numeric keyboard. Likewise, another bit of code found by the source in Chromium Gerrit hints at the development of a touchless input method based on the physical D-pad, which is yet another control method employed by this low-budget mobile device category.
Finally, the screenshots have a resolution of 640 by 480, which would correspond to the pixel count and aspect ratio expected from a modern feature phone's display.
Google's involvement in the feature phone segment so far
These bits of code and screenshots might indicate that Android OS will eventually expand its borders to include low-cost feature phones, i.e., a form factor which remains very popular in emerging markets. On the other hand, code found in Gerrit isn't always translating into a final product so there is no guarantee that Google will become more involved with this mobile phone category in the near future.
But it's important to note that Google has already shown an interest in feature phones over the past year or so. Last summer Google made a $22 million investment in KaiOS. This is an open-source mobile operating system for phones that lack a touch input method, and so far it has been employed by various feature phones launched in recent years, including the Nokia 8110 4G remake.
Even more recently at Mobile World Congress 2019, Google announced that it will expand the functionality of Google Assistant for KaiOS-powered devices that come with a dedicated Assistant button, thus giving users access to Voice Typing in different languages.
Over the years Google continued to work on making Android OS less resource-intensive and went as far as creating the Android Go platform for budget touch-enabled smartphones. The OS works together with simplified "Go" mobile applications and is designed primarily for devices with low RAM and slower processors. These efforts might not stop with the budget smartphone segment and Google could take the concept to a whole new level for non-touchscreen mobile phones.
A much simplified "touchless" version of Android OS would expand the platform to an entire category of devices so far untapped by the tech giant, and could tremendously increase Google's customer base. Feature phones are now being used as the primary method for connecting to the Internet in many emerging markets, and the search engine giant could benefit from increasing its brand awareness in these regions where touch-enabled smartphones will likely become more popular in the coming years.