Smartphones are like porn – I know ‘em when I see ‘em

I was recently lucky enough to be part of a conversation (off the back of people being at Mobile World Congress) where a number of mobile experts were talking about the growth that smartphones are driving for mobile services. Loads of stats have shown that the iPhone and other ‘smartphones’ are driving consumption at incredible rates and they (and their app stores) seem to be driving innovation in the space. Great stuff.

Thanks to Six Steps on Flickr

Thanks to Six Steps on Flickr

But wait… wasn’t the Windows Mobile phone that I was sold nearly years ago a “smartphone”? The term “smartphone” seems to have gone underground after what I think many would consider a pre-mature birth and now re-emerged for devices that truly are smart and really delivering on the promise that early devices didn’t.

That said, what is a smartphone? In discussion with the experts I was talking to, we couldn’t come up with a perfect answer. Personally, I think you know one when you see it – a bit like the way that US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once tried to explain “hard-core” pornography by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it.

I also think its important to think about the use and purpose of a device before giving it a name. No offence to my lovely mother, but an iPhone in her hands would be anything but ‘smart.’ I’m sure she’d agree that a phone with buttons would be much ‘smarter’ for her.

Even Wikipedia says there’s no standard definition which makes me think this is a subject worthy of further conversation – probably one there won’t be an answer to, but still worth talking about (though About.com does offer one).

Below I’ve extracted some quotes from the conversation we were having and I’d love to know what you think – so please comment:

“Phones capable of push email and browsing desktop websites.”

“Phones capable of running 3rd party apps.” – according to Mobile Entertainment Forum

“Maybe … a smart phone is:
1. Capable of rendering xhtml
2. Capable of video playback
3. Capable of running 3rd party applications”

“Nokia will simply tell you that a smartphone is a multi-media computer.”

“A smartphone bridges the gap between the computer and phone; it is a converged device with superior capability. What this means in practice will vary over time.”

“A data oriented device that also had all the voice functions of a mobile phone with an open (or semi-open) OS that has an SDK that allows for the development of native third-party apps. The voice functions are not accessable by third party apps.”

2 responses to “Smartphones are like porn – I know ‘em when I see ‘em

  1. Personally, I like to define a smartphone much like Canadians define their own culture: by what it isn’t.

    It’s hard to define what a Canadian is because we have 2 clearly different cultures and histories, French and English, and they’ve come together along with immigration to create a giant shmorgasboard of peoples that share little but a passport. To define what is Canadian, we simply look South. A Canadian can define themselves by being not an American. You’ll often hear Canadians say comments ranging from harmless: “we don’t eat as much McDonalds” to downright hateful “we aren’t racist.” In any case, Canadians have the same problem with definition.

    That being said, what isn’t a smartphone? Here are some examples:

    Motorola RAZR
    The RAZR is not a smartphone for the simple reason that it exists within a “walled garden.” Still to this day, carriers limit the access one has to services outside of what the carrier provides. It limits you to such an extent that your phone is best left as a calling device, because the functionality of the other features is destroyed. The mobile web is simply a carrier deck, and discovering 3rd party apps is reduced to whatever the carrier has decided you may want. I’d also add the ROKR and most of the company’s clam shell phones to this list for the same reason.

    Sony Ericsson

    The majority of Sony Ericsson phones (save the most recent devices) are feature rich but not “smart.” Although a phone can play video, music, take video and pictures as well as have MMS capabilities, it can still be far from a smartphone. Features are great and they do make for a better mobile experience, but unless that media is supported by a content discovery system that isn’t locked down by your carrier, and allows for freedom of discovery as well as sharing, we’re still stuck in a situation very similar to the RAZR.

    Here is a simple test. Can you find a YouTube link, email it to yourself, and then open the link in your email? You may have a smartphone my friend.

    Thanks for the insightful post Jason!

  2. I like the simple test AND the comparison to Canadians – both simple and clear. And you know them both when you see them ;)

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