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

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
At what point do "smartphones" become "phones"?
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. 

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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". 

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