ABI Research analysts ruffled gadget-enthusiast feathers recently by suggesting that Apple's upcoming iPhone, though "clever and capable" cannot be considered a "smartphone." The reason, they said, was that a smartphone features an "open, commercial operating system that supports third party applications."
Really? Since when?
Most authoritative sources disagree about the definition of the word "smartphone," although nearly all say that it's a phone with PDA and Internet functionality, and say nothing about the "openness" of the OS.
Gartner defines "smartphone" as "A large-screen, voice-centric handheld device designed to offer complete phone functions while simultaneously functioning as a personal digital assistant (PDA)."
Palm's definition is: "A portable device that combines a wireless phone, e-mail and Web access and an organiser into a single, integrated piece of hardware."
I searched a wide range of sources, including all major American technology publishing houses, gadget-book publishers, online dictionaries, encyclopedias, Wikipedia and others, and not one of them agrees with ABI's requirement that a smartphone by definition runs an open OS that supports third-party software development.
Does that mean the iPhone really is a "smartphone"? Who cares?
The word "smartphone" itself is the problem. The term is misleading, inexact, confusing, practically useless and totally obsolete. Here are three reasons why everyone should stop using the S word:
1. The industry avoids the word 'smartphone'
The pundits, experts and enthusiasts, including us in the press, love to use the word "smartphone." We love it so much we're blind to the fact that vendors in the industry we cover aggressively avoid the term. Here's how the major handset manufacturers categorise their products:
- Nokia uses: "Camera Phones," "Bluetooth Capable Phones" and "Video Recording Phones."
- Sony Ericsson uses: "Talk & Text Phones," "Camera Phones," "Music Phones," "Design Phones" and "Web & E-Mail Phones."
- LG uses: "EVDO Phones," "Bluetooth Phones" and "MP3 Phones."
- Palm calls all phones "Smartphones."
- Research in Motion calls all phones "Devices."
- Samsung and Motorola avoid the categorisation of phones altogether.
How about the (US) carriers?
- Sprint uses: "Multimedia Phones," "Video Phones," "Picture Phones" and "PDA Phones."
- Cingular uses: "Camera Phones," "Music Phones," "Gophone," "PDAs / Smartphones" and "Flip Phones."
- T-Mobile uses: "Bar Phones," "Flip Phones," "Slider Phones" and "Sidekicks."
- Verizon uses: "Cell Phones," "PDAs & Smartphones," "Blackberry Devices" and "Push-To-Talk Phones."
Only Cingular and Verizon use "smartphone." But notice this: Both companies add "PDAs" to the smartphone label, even though neither sells non-phone PDAs. Apparently, the initials "PDA" are required in order to clarify to the public what a "smartphone" is. "Smartphone" cannot stand alone as a clear descriptor of what phones do.
Palm is the only handset maker that uses the term, but uses it for all its phones. The company doesn't use it to categorise different classes of Palm phones.
Here's the shocking, bottom-line result of my survey: Not a single major handset vendor or carrier uses "smartphone" by itself to differentiate to customers one kind of phone from another.
What does that tell us about the clarity and usefulness of "smartphone" as a category?
2. The line between "smartphones" and regular phones is blurred.
When "smartphone" came into vogue, entire sets of features - PIM (Personal Information Manager) functionality and, later, Internet access - all went together in this kind of phone, and none of these features was available in "regular" phones.
Back then, the only thing you could do with a cell phone was make calls. Then along came a radical new class of super phones. An enormous gulf separated the two types, which forced us to come up with a way to differentiate them. The handset universe was clearly binary.
Even as recently as five years ago, you could take the most advanced cell phone and place it side-by-side with the dumbest "smartphone," and the difference between the two would be vast. They looked different. They worked differently. And their list of features was utterly incomparable.
But that world is gone forever. Most "high-end" features, such as e-mail, IM, games, video, camera, FM radio and speakerphone, can be found in cheap phones most analysts would not consider "smartphones."
Phone choices now are the opposite of binary. There is a near perfect gradation starting with the most austere, feature-poor phone, moving up gradually through hundreds of options right up to the most feature-rich phones. And some of those phones at the very high end are not considered "smartphones" by the experts.
Consider, for example, the LG enV, available through Verizon. It supports Bluetooth 2.0. You can use it as a laptop modem. It plays MP3 files and video files in stereo. You can sync it with your PC. Its calendar and e-mail application supports vCard. Its 2-megapixel camera has auto focus and a flash. It has a speakerphone, text-to-speech capability, speaker-independent voice recognition and voice-recording. The feature list goes on and on: QWERTY keyboard, turn-by-turn navigation, wireless sync and microSD support.
This phone isn't considered a "smartphone" by most industry analysts. Why? Because third-party applications for phones like this must be written to support BREW or Java, rather than natively.
Try explaining that to your average phone buyer.
3. 'Smartphone' was never a good label
Out of all the categories the industry has come up with to define and differentiate phones with advanced features - "communicator phone," "PDA phone," "converged device," "Internet phone" - "Smartphone" is by far the least meaningful.
All the other descriptors we use to describe phones - "camera phone," "music phone," "slider phone" - actually mean something everyone understands. But "smart" tells you nothing. Sure, you need a Ph.D to learn how to use some of these phones, but that doesn't make the phone smart.
If you want to divide the phone universe the way ABI does, then a better descriptor would be "open platform phone." If Gartner's differentiator is the one you like, then "PDA phone" means something. Palm's definition would work better as "Internet phone."
But "smart"? What does that mean? Well, according to my online dictionary, the primary meaning is: "Characterised by sharp quick thought." But "regular" phones are and always have been sharper and quicker than "smartphones." (I like the secondary meaning better: "To cause a sharp, usually superficial, stinging pain.")
"Smartphone" has always been just a vague, meaningless proxy for an unspecified range of features that nobody agrees on and that are no longer exclusive to the category.
More on open platforms
In closing, ABI deserves credit for its valiant effort to bring meaning to an increasingly meaningless term. The distinction between "open" platform phones and the rest is a real one. ABI isn't making it up. (The operating systems ABI is referring to are the Symbian OS, Linux, Windows Mobile, RIM BlackBerry or the Garnet OS, formerly known as the Palm OS.)
The distinction is real, but arcane, irrelevant and confusing. It's a distinction not worth making for most of us. Nowadays, the distinction matters only to software developers.
I think analysts lean too heavily on this distinction and need to come up with a new way to talk about the mobile phone market. Ideally, they should try to agree on a feature grid that includes all the major technologies -- multimedia, GPS, Internet access, keyboard types, pointing devices, cameras and so on.
Whether devices support "open" software development or "sandbox" platforms (BREW and Java) -- or are closed altogether -- should be one pillar of categorization. But it shouldn't be the main one, and it shouldn't use the term "smartphone."
The truth is that the lay public doesn't know what "smartphone" means, the experts disagree and vendors can't use it.
Let's face it: The word "smartphone" is just plain dumb.