Just What is a Smartphone, Anyway?

I was speaking with my friend and colleague Keith Shaw this afternoon. Keith, of course, is the gadgets guy at Network World and his reviews and podcasts are highly recommended for anyone who's in the market for a personal or enterprise mobile anything, or just interested in what's new and exciting. Keith usually finds out about new stuff sooner than anyone else I know, and, of course, refuses to say how he does it.

So I turned to Keith for help with the Mobile Devices session at Mobile Business Expo, a wireless conference that I Chair in New York in September, and part of Interop New York. Keith's job is to find speakers who represent mobile device companies and convince them to present at his session. This should be easy; this one always fills up and features demos of the latest and greatest in smartphones.

So, anyway, Keith mentioned to me that a discussion with a potential speaker resulted in a discussion of exactly what a "smartphone" might be. The term is widely used and is of some historical value today, but IMHO is otherwise today seriously ambiguous. Originally, in the early 1990s, the term meant any phone with functionality beyond basic keypad dialing. Today we take such smartphone functions as a dialing directory, a simple calculator, and even basic Web access as givens, and I'm not aware of any handsets sold in the US (with the possible exception of some very low-end models which appeal to the incredibly frugal) that wouldn't qualify as smartphones today.

I would propose, then, that we've seen handsets quadrifurcate into the following, with my suggested category names:

  • Feature Phone - The vast majority of phones on the market, mostly flip phones with a keypad but no keyboard of any form. These are designed to be small and cheap, and have limited additional smartphone functionality as determined by the carrier and handset manufacturer in each case. This class of product is targeted at the vast majority of consumer customers - those who just want a phone, but might be enticed to use basic "wireless Web" or similar enhanced functionality as well. Cameras are very common now, even in low-end phones.
  • Media Phone - These are aimed at those who are or would otherwise be iPod users and who just can't live without constant access to their tunes (and some videos as well) lest they actually have to speak with another human being. No keyboard, although limited Web is usually available. Examples include the LG Chocolate, HTC Touch, and Samsung Upstage.
  • Smartphone - These handsets are larger, and often in the PDA form factor. They include reasonable if not good Web access, a physical or software keyboard (not just a keypad), and usually have good media capabilities. This class of product is targeted at consumers. Examples include the Verizon Voyager, LG Dare, AT&T Tilt, and the Samsung Instinct. The browsers on these phones are good but usually inferior to those available on the next category.
  • Platform Phone - These are designed for at least limited extensibility and as a consequence are built on a mobile OS. These have much more robust browsers, physical or software keyboards, and the ability to run third-party apps. Examples include Blackberrys, Palms, anything based on Windows Mobile or Symbian, the upcoming LINUX-based phones from Android and others, and, of course, the iPhone. These products are targeted at sophisticated end-users and especially the enterprise.

I used to think that a Platform Phone made no sense and that apps would be run via Web services, but it likely takes a big OS to run a big browser. And it now appears the hybrid model, with local execution of personal information management and personal productivity apps and Web-based execution of enterprise software, makes more sense and will likely dominate for the foreseeable future. Platform phones, then, are what most of us enterprise types will be using. And maybe that name will catch on. I had, after all, at least partial success with VoFi.

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