Monday, June 16, 2008

What makes a smartphone “smart”?

(The following is a copy of something I wrote for another blog. -Mordy)

What makes a Smartphone "smart"?

The term Smartphone is thrown around a lot in current marketing, but how many people can actually peg a definition to it?
Personally, coming from a background in Windows CE development, I usually hear the term Smartphone to refer to the following:

A low-profile Windows Mobile device that incorporates a phone module and does not include a touch screen.

These devices, which originally resembled standard phones with numeric keypads (such as the HTC Tornado, HTC StarTrek, and Motorola MPX200) ran an OS Microsoft called Smartphone Edition, which was optimized for key navigation as opposed to touch screen input. They were for people who wanted a “phone first, and a PDA second”, or rather a PDA that looked and operated like a phone.
Microsoft’s full blown touch screen handsets that resembled a PDA were referred to as Pocket PC Phone Edition in contrast.
(I say this in past tense because MS decided recently not to call them Smartphone and Pocket PC Phone anymore. They are now Standard Edition and Professional Edition, respectively)

On the other side of the playing field, however, Palm refers to their Treo line of handsets as “Smartphones”, despite the fact that they all have touch screens and look like PDAs, including even their wx models (which run Microsoft’s Windows Mobile)!

Clearly Microsoft’s definition of a Smartphone is not shared by the rest of the industry.

So, perhaps a Smartphone refers to the marriage of a well known PDA (such as Palm or Windows Mobile) with phone components?

Most people in the market for a “Smartphone” want to be able to replace their tried-and-true PDA and phone with one device. So, perhaps the term refers to a familiar PDA Operating System merged with a phone?

This can’t be the case since there are many devices on the market called Smartphone, many of which are not running Palm or WM.
Nokia, who offers a wide variety of handsets for various markets, calls their high end phones running the open Symbian OS Smartphone. The belief is that the term actually originated from their Communicator line of handsets, which was marketed as being “a Smart Phone”, since it offered smarter features than the rest of their handsets at the time.
Nokia’s Symbian handsets, which run on non-touch screen devices that resemble phones, seem to agree with Microsoft’s definition of the term. They are phones that look and work like phones, however underneath the hood they have the power of a full blown portable operating system.

To complicate matters, you must also consider Sony Ericsson with their P900 series of phones that runs Symbian… but with a touch screen!
These SE devices are also called “Smartphone”, despite looking like a full blown touch-screen PDA.
Clearly the definition needs to be less specific.

Perhaps a Smartphone refers simply to a phone with PDA features?

That may have been in the case in the late 90’s, when phones that carried the title Smartphone clearly had features which differed radically from standard features phones of their time. The problem now, is that most modern phones have PDA features.
I used to sync my Sony Ericsson T610 with my outlook calendar and contacts, send and receive email, and browse the mobile web as well as play games. The T610 was a fairly standard feature phone in Sony Ericsson’s lineup, yet only the P900 series was worthy of the term “Smartphone”.
Same story with Nokia phones, with some of their low-end s40 handsets offering roughly the same set of features out of the box as their Symbian counterparts.
So what, in the eyes of Nokia and SE, is the difference between devices labeled “smart” vs. the others?
Perhaps a Smartphone refers to a phone with an Operating System that allows third party development?
This is the definition that always made the most sense to me, and the one I used to live by.
A standard feature phone has a limited set of features that it can do out of box (for example: music player, calendar, contacts, java games, email, etc).
A Smartphone is a phone with an open architecture OS, which allows third party applications to add new features or even change the very user interface. These devices can grow and evolve with the user’s needs, therefore it makes sense to call a phone that can learn new tricks “Smart“, or at least smarter than the average handset.

But don’t all phones these days allow you to download and install little programs?

Yes, average phones such as even the Motorola Razr can have some degree of third party development, in the form of Java applications installed that add new features. The difference is that they run in what is referred to as a “java sandbox”, that is, it has to play within the confines of the limited control Java gives the developer. The Java environment does not allow the feature-altering power that a real development API offers.
You don’t get access to the hardware features within Java, instead you get a limited set of commands such as drawing graphics on the screen, playing tones, interpreting keys, etc…
The result is that simple applications that can run inside the sandbox, such as games or shopping list calculators, are available but you can’t change the user experience of the phone (for example, a new voice command to control how you dial contacts) or develop code that takes control of the hardware (for example a VOIP application like Skype).

Although this definition makes the most sense to me, sadly, it doesn’t fit with all the devices currently being marketed as a Smartphone.

RIM’s Blackberry, the LG Instict, and the first edition iPhone (before being opened up with the new SDK) were all touted as “Smartphone” even though the development support was severely limited, if existent at all.

So, then perhaps the definition of a Smartphone is simply a phone that has high-end computer like features (email, html web browsing, etc)?

The problem with this is that most of those “Smart” features are now available on even standard fare phones!

Applications such as Opera Mini, which despite running inside the Java sandbox, can be installed on almost any standard device supporting Java, and manages to deliver full blown html web pages on any size screen. In fact, many users claim that Opera Mini is better than the browser that comes with their Smartphone.

Then there’s Funambol, an open source startup that focuses on data synchronization across any platform and device. So you can synchronize your PIM with your home computer, office computer, and many common phones. It even has a system to support Push email on almost any device, something the Blackberry is famous for.

If Blackberry style email and iPhone style web browsing are what make those phones “Smart”, then all current phones can be considered Smartphones!

Sadly, the conclusion is that there is no industry standard definition of a Smartphone.

The term appears to have changed with the times, and is now sadly lost to marketing jargon. Whereas once upon a time “Smartphone” implied certain features, now you can have two phones with identical features yet only one is marketed as a “smart” device.

If I wrote the book on the mobile industry, I’d have clearer suggestions for device titles:

Smartphone: A phone device that has an open platform Operating System that allows full development to create and change the software, similar to a full blown mini computer. Examples: Palm Treo, HTC’s WM lineup, OpenMoko, Symbian OS, and the upcoming Google Android.

Advanced MultiMedia Phone: A platform that offers glitz and glam high end features, especially multimedia, while not offering the full flexibility of a Smartphone. Examples: iPhone, LG Voyager, etc.

Portable Internet Messaging Device: Devices that offer smart features such as web browsing, push email, and other business class capabilities. Examples: RIM Blackberry.

I think that would solve a lot of the confusion, such as “Why can’t my blackberry run skype like that WM phone” or “how come the iPhone doesn’t have a keyboard?”.

Sadly, for now we’ll just have to make our own definitions.