Smartphone: a definition. Or not...

Smartphone: a definition. Or not...

Recently I took my six-week-old HTC in to the shop for repairs. Waiting in line, I overheard a sales advisor and his prey talking about the virtues of various phones. The term smartphone was used excessively, to the extent that I nearly swore to never use it again myself. By the time I got home, however, another thought had entered my mind: "what exactly is a smartphone?"

I kicked Google into gear, and a search confined to the the year 2010 alone revealed that the word was mentioned online approximately 490,000,000 times. That's right: every second in 2010 smartphone popped up on the internet some 15 different times. The more focused search "definition for smartphone" overwhelmed me with another few million hits. Undeterred, however, I took out the shovel and dug.

What is a smartphone? You think you know, don't you? It's like a smart phone, right? Well, before we get to that old chestnut, first let's get one thing out of the way. There is one technical definition of a smartphone that uses smartphone with a capital S. As in Smartphone. According to Microsoft, any phone that runs Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.5 or below and doesn't have a touchscreen can be termed a Smartphone. Anything since then is just a smartphone.

Confused yet? You will be. By the way, if you're wondering why there's a picture of a brick phone flying a Zeppelin at the top of this article, ease up now. That is IBM's Simon, a device launched in 1993 and generally referred to as the first smartphone. You can read all about this Simon on Wikipedia. Interestingly, it had a touchscreen.

"A smartphone is a mobile phone that offers more advanced computing ability and connectivity than a contemporary basic feature phone." So starts the smartphone entry on Wikipedia. But what do they know (or should that be what do we know)?

Let's check with someone who should know. How about a company that sells phones? A lot of phones. They should know their stuff. And on to Vodafone – Vodafone Ireland to be specific. Look at the photo below, and you might be tempted to ask what they know either...

Smartphone: a definition. Or not...That screenshot was taken at the time of writing and captures a slice of the pre-pay handset range over on Vodafone.ie. Conveniently, Vodafone marks relevant handsets as smartphone, or doesn't.

There really isn't any system at work: the Nokia E5 is clearly a Symbian smartphone (you can check with Nokia) yet Vodafone says it isn't. The Nokia E52, meanwhile, very much is a smartphone according to Vodafone's team of web brainiatrics... while the iPhone 3GS isn't. Et cetera, ad absurdum.

Speaking of the iPhone, back in 2006 before the iPhone's first appearance some very smart minds tried to work out what the term smart phone actually meant. You can follow the attempt down in the dark archives of silicon.com. A hint though: they gave up.

The closest they came to nailing it was a jokey "it's a phone that executives ask their techies to set up and techies worry will end up lost in the back of a taxi, along with all of the sensitive data it holds". Which funnily enough is about as reliable a definition as we've seen anywhere.

Interestingly, the authors link to another article about a smartphone, the then hotly anticipated though ultimately ill-fated Sony Ericsson M600. The article reminded me of the odd fact that at the time Sony Ericsson avoided using the S-word, going for "messaging device" instead, as they felt smartphone was a device for the business user.

How that has changed. These days a smartphone means connectedness. They are our toys and entertainment centres; our cameras and secret diaries.

Smartphones, as the staple definition used to go, combine phone functionality and a little bit extra. The IBM Simon had a calendar and could weigh down an attacking wrestler. Then came email support, web browsers, media players and indigestion emulators in the shape of iFart apps.

But wait! My old Sony Ericsson K750 could take photos, collect my email and surf the web. It was not a smartphone. Yes, I learned, because it didn't run a smart and open OS. Hmm... how open was the first iPhone? Yes, developers could develop apps for its OS, but only those that fit Apple's idea of iPhonesque.

It couldn't multi-task, for instance – another pre-2007 definer of smartphone-ness. Well, OK, smartphone is not a standardised industry term today, and wasn't in 2007. These days Microsoft, the guys who did originally define the term (complete with capital S) have released a smartphone OS clumsily named Windows Phone 7 Series that does not multi-task, and whose required hardware specifications and software development guidelines are very strict and un-open. Yet, Windows Phone 7 devices are classed as smartphones.

Oh well, that is because Microsoft now has an app store. And speaking of apps, neither its nor Apple's handsets – or smartphones, as we are told to call them – can be connected to any and every computer as mass-storage devices. This too was another feature that used to be shared by smartphones: the ability to easily transfer files between phone and PC without the need for special syncing software. Functionality out, iFart in.

So with all the confusion, why does the web feature 490 million uses of the word smartphone in 2010 and just over two million back in 2006 or 2007? Judging by my own experience and the dozens of web hits I sampled, in those simpler days most of the s-word usage can be blamed on bored geeks and sales reps

Today, it's all about money. App stores and marketplaces mean big bucks – after all, the word smartphone makes the perfect hook. Over a period of five years it has been redefined beyond recognition, hijacked from the technology sector and voided of most of its original meaning. Meaning has been replaced by emotion. The world is a bit nutty, but our smartphones keep us in touch, don't they?

Just like the word 'plastic', smartphone has become a word that simply serves a function, Whether it's a bucket or a brick of bargain cheese, most of us don't know what plastic actually looks like. The substance is secondary to the function, providing us with cheap appliances that simply fill a part of our lives. Smartphone, I'm sorry to say, has become such a plastic word.

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7 comments

prscullion  Jan. 31, 2011 at 15:15

A smartphone (according to industry standard market share definitions) is a handset with a full QWERTY keyboard, push e-mail and application based operating system.

JanSt / MOD  Jan. 31, 2011 at 16:01

Thanks, prscullion.
Would you be able to post a link to that 'standard' definition? :)
And how come the Blackberry Pearl and Nokia E50/51/52 etc are 'smartphone classics'?

And what is an 'application based' OS? I know windows desktop OS's are actually build around IE(which is why it's nearly impossible to remove Internet Explorer from Windows PCs)...but that cannot be what the definition refers to, surely?

StephenTMorris  Sep. 18, 2012 at 10:05

An application-based OS is surely an OS that supports pre-installed or downloadable apps. This makes it like a computer - you can install software on it. That's why it's smart, surely. Email is an example of an app. A QWERTY keyboard (physical or virtual) is nice to have, but not a core feature of a smartphone (with or without a capital S).

StephenTMorris  Sep. 18, 2012 at 10:06

This is my own attempt to explain it: http://www.mobile-phones-uk.org.uk/smartphones.htm.

JanSt / MOD  Sep. 18, 2012 at 12:07

Thanks for that.

JanSt / MOD  Sep. 18, 2012 at 12:08

And agree: qwerty has nothing to do with the definition, neither does a touchscreen!

JanSt / MOD  Sep. 18, 2012 at 12:11

Stephen, by the time the iPhone came out, Nokia, MS, Moto, Asus, Samsung, HTC etc etc had sold close to 400 million smartphones. To claim the iPhone kickstarted the thing is puzzling

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