Why 'smart phone' is a dumb label

The word is misleading, inexact, confusing and obsolete. It's time to drop it

ABI Research analysts ruffled gadget-enthusiast feathers recently by suggesting that Apple's upcoming iPhone, though "clever and capable," cannot be considered a "smart phone." The reason, they said, was that a smart phone must feature an "open, commercial operating system that supports third-party applications."

Really? Since when?

Most authoritative sources disagree about the definition of the term smart phone, although nearly all say that it's a phone with PDA and Internet functionality, and say nothing about the "openness" of the operating system.

Gartner defines a smart phone as "a large-screen, voice-centric handheld device designed to offer complete phone functions while simultaneously functioning as a personal digital assistant (PDA)."

Palm Inc.'s definition is: "a portable device that combines a wireless phone, e-mail and Web access and an organizer into a single, integrated piece of hardware."

I searched a wide range of sources, including all major U.S. technology publishing houses, gadget-book publishers, online dictionaries, encyclopedias, Wikipedia and others, and not one of them agrees with ABI's requirement that a smart phone by definition runs an open operating system that supports third-party software development.

Does that mean the iPhone really is a "smart phone"? Who cares?

The term smart phone itself is the problem. It's 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 term smart phone

The pundits, experts and enthusiasts, including us in the press, love to use the term smart phone. We love it so much that we're blind to the fact that vendors in the industry we cover aggressively avoid it. Here's how the major handset manufacturers categorize their products:

  • Nokia uses "camera phones," "Bluetooth-capable phones" and "video-recording phones."
    • Sony Ericsson uses "talk and text phones," "camera phones," "music phones," "design phones" and "web and e-mail phones."
    • LG uses "EVDO phones," "Bluetooth phones" and "MP3 phones."
    • Palm calls all of its phones "smart phones."
    • Research In Motion Ltd. calls all phones "devices."
    • Samsung and Motorola avoid the categorization of phones altogether.

    How about the carriers?

    • Sprint uses "multimedia phones," "video phones," "picture phones" and "PDA phones."
    • Cingular uses "camera phones," "music phones," "gophone," "PDAs /smart phones" and "flip phones."
    • T-Mobile uses "bar phones," "flip phones," "slider phones" and "sidekicks."
    • Verizon uses "cell phones," "PDAs and smart phones," "BlackBerry devices" and "push-to-talk phones."

    Only Cingular and Verizon use "smart phone." But notice this: Both companies add "PDAs" to the smart phone label, even though neither sells nonphone PDAs. Apparently, the initials "PDA" are required in order to clarify to the public what a "smart phone" is. "Smart phone" can't stand alone as a clear descriptor of what phones do.

    Palm is the only handset maker that uses the term, but it uses it for all of its phones. The company doesn't use it to categorize different classes of Palm phones.

    Here's the shocking, bottom-line result of my survey: Not a single major handset vendor or carrier uses "smart phone" by itself to differentiate to customers one kind of phone from another.

    What does that tell us about the clarity and usefulness of "smart phone" as a category?

    2. The line between "smart phones" and regular phones is blurred.

    When "smart phone" 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 superphones. 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 "smart phone," and the difference between the two would be vast. They looked different. They worked differently. And their lists of features were 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 "smart phones."

    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 to the most feature-rich phones. And some of those phones at the very high end are not considered "smart phones" by the experts.

    Consider, for example, the $199.99 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 "smart phone" 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. 'Smart phone' 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" -- "Smart phone" 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: "characterized by sharp, quick thought." But "regular" phones are and always have been sharper and quicker than "smart phones." (I like the secondary meaning better: "to cause a sharp, usually superficial, stinging pain.")

    "Smart phone" 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.

    In closing, more on open platforms

    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 also 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 "smart phone."

    The truth is that the lay public doesn't know what "smart phone" means, the experts disagree and vendors can't use it.

    Let's face it: The word "smart phone" is just plain dumb.

    Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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