At what point do "smartphones" become just "phones"?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
At what point do
Earlier today, we learned that smartphones have finally hit the magical point where more than half of all mobile users had a smartphone (in Q1 2012, according to Nielsen.) This begs a crucial question: at what point do "smartphones" simply become "phones"? At some point the turn has to be made, and given how quickly smartphones are penetrating the market, it seems as though it's a turn that could be made fairly soon. 

We've seen this happen with a number of technologies already. There's almost no point in distinguishing between a TV and an HDTV anymore, because the cost has come down so dramatically that anyone can afford an HDTV. Stereos no longer really need to be labeled as "HiFi", because sound quality is pretty high even in the cheapest of devices. Sure, there will be a difference on more expensive equipment, but the standard already meets the criteria. What was once called a "super computer" would be considered slow compared to devices we carry in our pockets. Similarly, it doesn't seem as though the day is that far off where "feature phones" no longer exist, and every new phone is "smart" to some extent.

Smart by ubiquity

There are already free (or almost free) devices available for every major platform including Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. Moving forward, the number of free devices will only increase and further push feature phones to the side. Cost is already less and less a determining factor in the choice between feature phones and smartphones, and the only real deterrent now is technological proficiency. Sure, there will be those who have no interest in smartphones because of some sort of fear of technology (which is often really just a fear of not being able to learn how to use the new tech,) but those people won't be able to stop smartphones from fully penetrating the market. Rather, those people will be forced to buy a smartphone due to a lack of feature phone options. 

Admittedly, this is a phenomena that we will see first in wealthier regions like the US/Canada, western Europe, Japan, etc., but eventually it is something that will extend to every part of the world. And, when we live in a world where all cell phones are smartphones, will we even bother with the term? If we do, what will distinguish basic smartphones from the upper echelon? With the speed at which the mobile market is evolving, what was dubbed the first superphone just two years ago isn't even able to run the newest version of its operating system because of a lack of internal storage. Now, the only company that even bothers with the marketing term "superphone" is RIM, because, well, let's face it, RIM needs every buzzword available to turn that ship around. 

The effects of naming

The idea may seem trivial, but the way we use language and the way we choose to describe things can tell a lot about the society at large. Maybe we're a bit too compulsive about accurate language (which may be why this is our chosen profession), but the naming of things is a way that we exert control and force understanding. By continuing to call these devices that we carry "smartphones", it makes two important assumptions: 

  1. That there is such a thing as a "dumb" phone.
  2. That users need to be "smarter" in some way in order to use these devices. 

The first assumption is still true, but, as we mentioned above, that is changing. The second point really isn't true at all, and eventually it seems as though the marketing teams may realize that they are alienating potential customers simply by calling these devices "smartphones" rather than "phones". 

The idea that you need to be smarter simply to use a smartphone is ridiculous. Yes, if you want to be able to use the smartphone to its fullest potential, you will need a certain level of tech savviness, or at the very least the willingness to learn a bit. However, to simply use a smartphone in the same way one might use a feature phone (you know for communication, like phone calls and maybe texting), smartphones can be even easier than most feature phones for completing these tasks. Even the addition of a virtual keyboard alone is likely to get more people texting than a simple T9 keypad that is found on many a feature phone. And, even the least tech savvy user could benefit from a contacts list or an incoming call screen with photos of their contacts rather than just text.

Technologically wary consumers may not realize this because they get scared off by all of the other features that are standard on a smartphone. Smartphones need to always be better and better, which means the marketing will focus more and more on advanced features like apps, web browsing, video chat, etc. These things may not be all that difficult to use, but the divide between "easy" tech and "hard" tech can be pretty thin for some users. 

The iPad alone has been one of the most instrumental devices in bringing in sections of the older techno-phobic crowd. Those who had been scared of smartphones will often pick up an iPad and realize just how easy the experience can be. There is just enough of the PC metaphor there to help people understand without needing to learn, but the over all experience is made even easier because of the touch interface. The direct connection from hand to action is so much more appealing for some than having to use a tool like a mouse. Once that initial hesitation is overcome, the smartphone experience is an extremely easy one. For basic use, there is no more learning needed than when using any feature phone, and all other functions are optional. 


That brings us right back to the beginning. Feature phones are already losing their cost benefit over smartphones, and it seems like it's only a matter of time before users begin to realize that the learning curve associated with a smartphone is actually optional. Just like with a traditional computer, if you don't need to use a certain function, you may not bother to learn how to do it. The same applies to smartphones. 

Once those two hurdles are overcome, the last hurdle is in making sure that smartphones have more built-in parental controls. iOS is so far the best for this, and others need to catch up, because eventually the only market left for feature phones would be for children, where parents don't want to allow access to content stores, web browsers, or certain apps. 

That day can't be too far off, and then there won't be a divide between cell phones, because they will all be smartphones. Eventually, it becomes the same as telling everyone that they are special and unique. With humans, being unique is normal; so, once smartphones are the norm, they won't really be "smart" any more. They'll just be phones. 

Until we get neural-embedded phones of course. Then, we'll definitely need a new word for what had once been known as a "smartphone". 



1. alpinejason

Posts: 262; Member since: Sep 06, 2011

pretty much sums it up!

2. Synack

Posts: 688; Member since: Jul 05, 2011

My Galaxy Nexus is just a phone. The Galaxy S3 also did not impress me, just like the iPhone4S. Somebody needs to take a giant step out of the box that all of the smartphones are currently in. Everything seems to be the same except for screen sizes.

3. frmrVZguy

Posts: 42; Member since: Mar 10, 2012

Title this: "SMART is DUMB if it doesn't work dependably." There's a different point of view about all this 'smartness' that relates to what the device can DO FOR you. I've had the chance to ride the tide of the 'smartphone wave' for the last 7-8 years and the definition of DO has changed from business communication to (that+business documentation tool) to (all that+production tool) and now to (all of that+multimedia device). I use each of those terms very broadly. A huge change in customer expectation occured as perceived and real affordability came along. Kids saw what mommy and daddy had in their pocket and it was like 'MAGIC' and eyecandy. They played and stayed with it. BUT, dependability is the ingredient that makes or breaks a concept. We just witnessed Blackberry outages and (Palm, WinMo and Blackberry) device failures (nerver mind what reason) cause the mighty to fall. The so-called smartphone is becoming THAT dependable that the customer EXPECTS 'Utility-grade' dependability and if it ever fails, so does customer trust. SMART is DUMB if it doesn't work dependably. The stories I know from behind the scenes just makes me shake my head in wonder: "How could THEY be so sloppy?" The big CAN fall merely due to quality and dependability problems that sabotage reputation and desirability. Remember THAT Apple. Who makes your phones and what is THEIR motivation to keep you as the top brand? Hmmmm?

4. wendygarett unregistered

Another great article michael :) im searching whether ther are some thumb up for you :)

32. -box-

Posts: 3991; Member since: Jan 04, 2012

Good article, but one concern I had about it was about the pricing. There are no truly "free" phones, just ones that are discounted with a contract and equipment subsidy. The way it's presented now is misleading

40. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

thats true. it may be free up front but your going to pay an averaged premium on it over the life of the contract...

5. Lucas777

Posts: 2137; Member since: Jan 06, 2011

personally i think price is a large hurdle smartphones need to overcome... not the phone itself per say, but the price of the service... plenty of people would buy a smartphone, but the extra cost of a data plan is too much and uneeded... but none of the carriers are willing to sell smartphones without a data plan, which limits the amount of people who can access them and who are relegated to feature/regularphones

6. nando2do

Posts: 53; Member since: Nov 10, 2011

agree on most of it. except when you say that carriers dont want to sell smartphones without data plan, that might happen on the US but not necessary on the rest of the world. but if you think about it, in basic economics, if the demand keeps growing like right now, the price will be have to be increase. just like iphones, those phones are not made by gold (some of the parts on the chips only) and still have stupid prices like 1,000 per unit if buy it without contract. next year the phones that right now have 2 cores will be obsolete since the competition keeps pushing the boundaries on expansion of hardware which actually doesnt necessary means its worth it. the idea of a smart phone was to make your online assets easy and common ones like phone calls and txt easier. right now we find phones with 4 cores, retina display, ultra thin. etc.. stuff that makes people look and think is better just because is thinner, bigger, and good looking. the thing is, whats next? what would you get on 2014? a 5.6 inch phone, 7 inches thick with super ultra amoled or super retina whatever they come out with. will never know till we get there :D in the meantime we can still keep playing with our toys

7. Lucas777

Posts: 2137; Member since: Jan 06, 2011

well the US is the only place i am familiar with, but i understand the rest of the world functions without contracts.. i think u mean 7 millimeters btw.. the carriers complain about subsidizing costs of smartphones.. but i dont see any of them giving up the model and moving toward one where people are not locked into data contracts-- except for sort-of tmbile.. but its not really much of a change..

8. potatosalad

Posts: 40; Member since: May 07, 2012 when you can have free internet on your mobile. and i'm speaking zero balance of your credit. (plan subscription not included)

9. ilia1986 unregistered

I think that there needs to be a clear distiction here, Michael. Smartphones used to be defined as a phone on which one can install 3rd party apps which bring additional functionality. These days there are still smart and "dumb" phones as you described, however this is indeed changing wildly - but in a different way. I think that the distincion in the future will be between smart phones - and super smart phones. Or "dumb" phones and smart phones. Let me explain. IMO, in the future, a smartphone will be considered a device which would be truly smart - capable of performing actions beyond the range of other phones not because it has necessarily better hardware or a different form factor, but because of the phylosophy driving the nature of it's OS. A phone that allows you for example to take a picture of an icon of a file on your PC via it's monitor, and which then proceeds to automatically connect with said PC over Wifi, and download the file to your device. A phone which can be set to ring the alarm at a certain rate, and detect that if it is not picked up, put a status on every social network telling everyone how lazy you are. A phone which can truly do everything because of the open nature of it's OS, and the freedom given to both developers who write apps for it, and the user who ends up using it. A phone customizable in every way which is possible, as needed. I am talking of course about phones running Open Source OSs - Android and (hopefully in the future) WebOS On the other hand, there are other types of phones - which in my opinion are "dumb" phones. Sure, they may be considered smartphones right now, but as you said - Times - they are a'-changin. These phones contrary to those mentioned earlier, provide the end user with a 95% fixed user experience. In order to get a different experience out of their phone, a user needs to download a 3rd party app, simply because he\she cannot change almost anything on the device otherwise. These apps also are very restrictive in their nature, and cannot interface or change directly various aspects of the phone itself. These phones have a closed OS. What you see is what you get. A good exapmple would be of course phones running iOS and Windows Phone 7, but there is also RIM with it's BB platform. In my opinion, these phones are very very similar to "dumb" phones nowdays, if we were to take dumb phones, give them a touch-screen and add a proprietary application store for them. So, to conclude, I believe that the future distinction will be between "dumb" phones which only give the end user a fixed user experience, and only provide 3rd party apps in order to enhance it in very fixed ways, and between smartphones which are capable of literally anything a person can think of and the hardware can perform, and give the end user almost unlimited choice and have virtually unlimited potential. So in short - IMO, the times are changing - but the distinction will stay pretty much the same.

11. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Sorry, but I can't agree with any of that. You've got yourself a great start to an Android/Open source religion, but that's about it. Your definition of "smartphone" is way too exclusive for my tastes.

13. ilia1986 unregistered

Why is it exclusive, Michael? Isn't a smartphone a phone which can do more - much more - than the regular dumbphones? And Android\Open source is not a religion. It's more of a philosophy. Religion requires donations\cash to exist. Android does not. :) What is your definition of a smartphone, Michael?

14. bizwhizzy

Posts: 51; Member since: Aug 04, 2011


15. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

It's exclusive because it is defining something not just on potential, but the potential to provide functionality that 99% of users will never use or care about. If you're going to define like that, you quickly get into some murky water. So, an old G1 would be considered a "smartphone" just because it's running Android, but a Windows 8 phone or the iPhone 5 wouldn't because of the platform? That's absurd. Just because something is "closed" rather than "open" doesn't mean that there aren't APIs to allow 3rd party devs to extend the functionality of the system past what the base platform offers. I don't think "smartphone" is something that can have a static definition. Just like you can't have a static definition for "computer". Static definitions don't work well in tech, because everything evolves too fast. The loose definition you give is good enough for me. A smartphone is a phone which can do much more than a dumbphone. That gives a loose definition on both ends which can evolve over time. That said, iOS, WP7, BB, webOS, Symbian, bada, and Android are all smartphones (some smarter than others in various ways).

19. ilia1986 unregistered

Well that's some yet-to-be-proven statistics you got there, Michael. I believe - as evidenced by countless YouTube videos, articles, and number of tweaks\apps\launchers\etc in Google Play - that there are a whole lot of things which are widely used by a lot of people - and these things provide functionality which people do care about - a lot of people - not just 1%. And yes - potentially a G1 would be smarter when compared to an iPhone 5 or WP8. Just like the original Droid for example would be smarter than a Nokia S40 phone with a 1Ghz processor, despite having inferior specs. "Just because something is "closed" rather than "open" doesn't mean that there aren't APIs to allow 3rd party devs to extend the functionality of the system past what the base platform offers. " I am sorry but this is wrong. A closed platform wouldn't allow a developer to change it's core aspects, or interface with them in any matter. Apps for the iPhone can only interface with the hardware components - not with the software one. That's why you can use a different web browser - but when you open a link in your mail app - Safari opens no matter what. And that's just one example out of many. And yes, the world is evolving - and as I said - IMO in the future there will be smartphones and there will be no-so-smart phones, aka dumbphones. Yes, as you said, all those aforementioned platforms are considered smart today, but remember than backn in the 1990's, having access to your mail via GPRS was considered the pinnacle of technology, where today almost any phone can do that. Times - they are a'-changin :)

20. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Open source doesn't mean unlimited access. There are limits on Android developer access just like any other platform. There are plenty of things you can't do without root access, which is no different than rooting WP or jailbreaking iOS. As I said, you can't define based on potential. The potential for Android is greater just because the source is open, but the functionality borne from that potential is only open to the very low percentage that roots their devices. You can only define for the base user.

22. ilia1986 unregistered

Yes, and this is why I was talking about the future. I believe that in the future every Android phone will be rooted, or at least the user can enable SU privilieges via the settings menu. Already we can see some companies openly providing tools to unlock the bootloaders of their devices. Besides - again - given the amount of custom ROMs and tweaks which require user access, I would argue that that the percentage of users who do root their device isn't nearly as low as you might think. A produce can be defined based on potential, just like you'd rather buy a car which potentially could go 1000 miles on a single gallon of gas (for this example's sake) than a car which can only go for 30 miles on a single gallon. Given of course that both cars are evenly priced. Potential does matter. A lot. As for this "base user" - he\she too is changing. People are becoming more and more aware of what smartphones do. That in turn will cause those of them who are curious by nature to explore, research and discover new things they can do with their phone, and if they ever find out that their phone can't do all these cool things that their friend's phone can because the company which made it decided that it should control the user experience, and not them, may God help that company once the number of such people grows large enough.

33. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Aha, so your definition of smartphone doesn't actually cover any existing "smartphones". According to your definition, everyone is buying a dumbphone, and those that choose to root are then converting their devices into smartphones. How is that not exclusionary? Whether it gets 30MPG or 1000MPG, it's still called a car is it not? Increased awareness of potential has very little bearing on choice with many consumers, because as I pointed out in the article, many people are simply too lazy or too disinterested to learn or take advantage of what smartphones can do. There are plenty of people who buy an Android, but never really install more than a few apps. Yes, the base user is changing, but not nearly as much as you think. All of this leads right back to my point. You are not only setting a static definition, but one that may never come to pass (all phones rooted? really?), and one that doesn't even cover any current smartphones. As I said originally, that is far far too exclusionary for me. Just because you have an idea of what the perfect smartphone would be for you, doesn't mean that everyone agrees, or even wants that idea to be true. That is exclusionary. Just because someone wants a touchscreen and a few apps, but doesn't want or care about advanced features doesn't mean they aren't buying a smartphone, it just means they aren't using it to its fullest potential, but it's still a smartphone. According to your definition, only Linux boxes would be considered computers, not Windows or Mac. So, even a Chromebook, which is a Linux box that only runs a browser would be considered more of a computer than any Windows PC. That's the danger of defining on potential and philosophy.

44. ilia1986 unregistered

Well first of all we are all aware than even an unrooted Android phone can do much much much more than the most advanced iPhone will ever be able to. But yes - essentially I see a smartphone - in the future - as a rooted Android\Open source phone. Sorry. That's just how I see it - because it's capable of virtually anything. It's a bit extreme, I know - but this is how I envision the industry in 10+ years - Smartphones which give the end user almost complete control over the device, and not-so-smart-phones which provide the user with a fixed user experience. If we compare it to the pre-iPhone era - this distinction is about right as well. There were dumb phones which couldn't do anything more than what they already did, and gave the end user very little if any control over the device, and there were the Nokia\Blackberry\WinMo smartphones which gave the user a whole lot more control over the device. As for the root thing - as I said - a LOT of people are rooting their Android phones. There wouldn't be as many custom roms, tweaks and apps which require rooting if that wasn't true. So yes - a car is still a car - just like a phone is still a phone is still a phone. But there is a clear and distinct difference in potential. "Increased awareness of potential has very little bearing on choice with many consumers, because as I pointed out in the article, many people are simply too lazy or too disinterested to learn or take advantage of what smartphones can do." True. For now. But remember the late 90's. Windows 95 launch. People bought it just out of hype, not even sure what to do with that. People bought it even though they didn't have a PC! Fast forward 2012. Show me a person who is willing to buy PC software just out of hype without being aware of it's core features and benefits, and I will show you a man who is either very rich, or loves gambling. This is what is going to happen in the mobile market as well. It's already starting to happen. People are becoming more and more aware than the smartphone is a PC - and they don't wanna get stuck with a PC which can't do things while another PC which costs the same and exists in the same time - can. Again, a "smartphone" is really definition dependent. We just happen to define it differently, I guess. Btw - Linux IS superior to anything else. The problem with it is lack of support from large companies. If linux had the amount of support Android does today - I assure you that the desktop market would have looked drastically different by now. But hell, at least Microsoft has the fracking basic decency to provide the user access to it's file system.

48. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

See, this is the problem I have when discussing things with you. You are constantly going off topic. The topic has never been whether or not there is a difference in potential between a rooted Android and stock iPhone, or between a 30MPG car and a 1000MPG car, nor am I arguing at all that what you're saying is true on either account. The point has always been that regardless of that potential difference each is still placed under the same word. Regardless of potential gas mileage, a car is a car. Regardless of openness or potential, a computer is a computer. And, regardless of openness or potential, a smartphone is still a smartphone. To throw in a sports metaphor, Kevin Durant may be a far far far better basketball player with far far better potential than Brian Scalabrine, but they are both still basketball players. Whatever you see as the best way, or the pinnacle of what certain thing can be is just your opinion, not the definition of that thing. Abstract concepts, like perfection (what you're talking about), can be defined differently by different people, but physical objects (smartphones) cannot otherwise language would be completely useless.

50. ilia1986 unregistered

How is this off topic? The article specifically states that you think that in the near future there will be almost no point in distinguishing between "smartphones" and "feature phones" given how every phone will be "smart" in some extent. I presented my opinion which stated that in my opinion, in the near future there will be a clear distinction between open source phones, and closed source ones. I dubbed the former "smartphones", and the latter "not-so-smart phones". I also explained why on numerous occasions. So yes - phones remain phones remain phones, and they are "smart" to some extent if by smart you consider access to 3rd party apps, and browsing the web (which is funny since these things existed on smart phones a long time before the original iPhone). These criteria will no longer be enough for a phone to be considered smart anymore, since you basically yourself stated that every phone is going to be "smart" to some extent. The same can be applied to phones 10 years ago. It can be argued that a camera phone 10 years ago, or a phone which allowed you to play MP3s was "smart". Heck, even WAP browsing was considered smart at one point. Access to a capacitive screen, a browser, and an ability to install 3rd party apps no longer define a smartphone these days. Something else does. And I believe that this something else is an open operating system which gives the end user an almost complete control over his\her phone. There is nothing wrong about debating about this here, but claiming that this is off topic seems to me a bit weird, frankly.

56. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

As I said, "Abstract concepts, like perfection (what you're talking about), can be defined differently by different people, but physical objects (smartphones)" It became off topic because you stopped talking about what the physical object is, how it relates to other physical things in the market, and how the definition of those physical things change over time, and began talking all about the abstract concept of perfection, which I don't think has any bearing on the conversation. Your definition of the perfect smartphone is your opinion, because it's based on what you like, and what you think is best. It is 100% subjective. What I'm trying to talk about are the physical objects that exist in the market. The physical things that most people in the world agree fall into the definition of smartphone (iOS, BB, Android, WP, bada, Symbian, etc.) as compared to feature phones. Trust me, I fully understand what you think is the ultimate smartphone, but my point is that the ultimate isn't the only thing that falls into a category and it is certainly not what defines that category, which is what you are continually trying to argue. I think this is off topic, because we aren't talking about what is the best, we're just talking about what falls into the category. As I've said a number of times, a car is still a car regardless of MPG rating. A star is still a star regardless if it is the size of our Sun or Star R136a1 (300x bigger, 10 million times brighter.) A computer is still a computer whether it runs Windows, Mac or Linux. And, a smartphone is still a smartphone whether it runs Android, iOS, WP, etc.

58. ilia1986 unregistered

Again, you misinterpret my post as something which deals about the topic of "the perfect smartphone". That was not my intent. I merely explained that in the *future* - in my opinion - there will be a clear distinction between open source phones and closed source ones. The former *will* be more capable than the latter. Hence the similarity to the current situation in which smartphones are more capable phones than feature phones. As I said - in my opinion - in the future - "feature phones" will become today's smartphones which have a closed OS, while "smartphones" will become today's smartphones which have an open OS. I also explained why. In addition - I tried to stay as objective as possible. It's true that I've thrown some hints here and there regarding which is superior - and these bits of opinions might have been off topic, but overall my posts have been only arguing that while you claim that in the future all phones will be more or less equal, unlike the current situation in which there are feature phones which are less capable, and smartphones which are more capable - I claim that in the future there will continue to be a clear distinction between different phone capability types: the "feature phones" will be phones with a closed OS, while "smartphones" will be phones with an open OS. Again - the topic of my posts is NOT which is superior - a closed OS or an open OS, but rather what I believe will be the distinction between different phone types in the future.

59. Saroku

Posts: 5; Member since: Jun 26, 2012

No, calling a device that people use for surfing, music, posting on facebook, photos, looking for the train, chatting via facebook, reading news, only a phone is more like calling a Recreational vehicle a ordinary car. A normal car is indeed primary used to drive. Thats what determines its form factor. But a Smartphone is NOT primary a phone like a car is primary a car. A Smartphones form factor was determined NOT by making a call. It has a big screen for multimedia an all kind of apps. So you can't say that just because a car will primary always be a car, that phones will always be primary phones.

21. biophone

Posts: 1994; Member since: Jun 15, 2011

Illia i also seem to find in your post you overestimate the importance of an open system. An open system is a matter a prefence some people would like a close system that has really world funcationality displayed in a intuivtive way. Really all a smartphone is, is a category of phones that have more capablebilties then standard phones. It just so carriers can seperate their premium phones from basic ones so they can distinguish which phones you must pay for data to have.

23. ilia1986 unregistered

You are implying that open source OSs are not intuitive to use, while closed source, are. That's not necessarily so.

24. biophone

Posts: 1994; Member since: Jun 15, 2011

Closed source os don't have as much customizability making them simplier and easier which makes it more intuivite for a first time smartphone user.

25. ilia1986 unregistered

Again, this is a generalization. Just because a system is open - doesn't mean it's harder to use. Yes you can do more with it, which means that you need to play with it for a bit to suit things for you, but that's the entire beauty of it. What would you prefer? to live in a house in which everything was set up, but you couldn't change anything or even move the furniture, or to design your house\apartment together with a professional designer and plan where everything goes, and have the ability to chage or replace it if need be? Control is good. It doesn't automatically mean that it gets harder to use.

26. biophone

Posts: 1994; Member since: Jun 15, 2011

If the house is already nicely made its just easier that way. Some prefer it

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