What “smartphone” means

John Gruber picked up my Nokia post, and makes an interesting comment.

After quoting my “Why on earth wouldn’t Nokia be able to maintain two operating systems?” he says:

I shouldn’t have written “mobile devices”; I should have written “smartphones.”

To me, that doesn’t make any difference. I count both MeeGo and Symbian as smartphone operating systems, so if John had written “smartphones” I would have made exactly the same comment.

That doesn’t mean John’s wrong, though. He just defines smartphones differently than I do. As I see it, he defines a “smartphone” as what I call a “high-end smartphone” (iOS, Android, MeeGo, webOS, likely Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry OS6, too).

This only goes to prove that the term “smartphone” is in desperate need of a new definition.

Originally, “smartphone” meant something like “phone that runs a recognisable OS and that you can install apps on.” Nowadays, though, that definition is becoming strained. It’s becoming possible to install apps on all kinds of phones, and OSs are slowly becoming more recognisable, too.

Speaking strictly, that would mean that in the not-too-distant future most phones would be smartphones.

Example: Samsung wants to end up in the smartphone top-three, and that’s the reason behind bada. bada is a recognisable OS and you can install apps on it. If every bada unit sold counts as a smartphone, Samsung going to make this target easily.

But it doesn’t make sense to compare bada to iOS — neither in functionality nor in target market. Consumers will not hesitate between the Samsung Wave and the iPhone. If they’re iPhone-minded they might pick up an Android instead; if they want something cheaper they’ll compare bada to Symbian or BlackBerry. But they won’t cross over to another market segment entirely.

From this perspective a change of definition would be desirable.

If we’d do that, though, market stats would stop to make sense. Symbian is the best-sold smartphone platform in the world and iOS is losing market share — according to the old definition. If we’d remove all Symbian phones (and bada, and older BlackBerrys, and Windows Mobile) from the smartphone category, though, the stats might change dramatically and cannot be compared to last year’s stats.

So on balance it’s unlikely that the definition will change any time soon: too many market parties have a vested interest in keeping the definition the same. In fact, only Apple (and maybe Google) have a vested interest in changing the definition.

I’m not sure how this is going to play out. I just wanted to warn against the term “smartphone.” If you encounter it, make sure you first understand whether the writer uses the old definition or means high-end smartphones.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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Comments are closed.

1 Posted by Eric on 18 September 2010 | Permalink

I think this says enough:
"Is Symbian fine for low-end “feature” phones? Sure. I’d say it’s sort of equivalent to the Pixo OS that Apple uses in iPods."
- John Gruber

"Smartphone" is the sexy thing now and the market is growing BUT you have to be on meth if you think that
a) there's no need for really really simple phones
b) those really really simple phones can use smartphone OS like Symbian
c) there'll be a low-end feature phone with Symbian during next 5 years. No way in hell. And this doesn't mean that Nokia is somehow lost with their platform strategy. Even S40 is today way too advanced (with Maps etc.) for certain low-end phones. That's why there's S30.

Also I really can't see the problem in Nokia's strategy. Symbian is in some ways the BEST smartphone OS there is. All the problems it has can be fixed (and part of them have already been fixed). It is amazingly optimized -> has been pain in the ass for devs, but Qt is there to change this.

All OS's have their own weaknesses: atm. Symbian might have an old UI, atm. Android has non-accelerated UI, etc. These things will be fixed. And at some point things go truly cross-platform with Web tech AND Qt (Lighthouse). Whether Apple wants it or not.

2 Posted by Ian McKellar on 18 September 2010 | Permalink

The definition of "smartphone" that I've come up with is pretty simple but pretty sad: Any phone that you have to recharge every day.

When I was traveling in Kenya recently I picked up a phone for about $25 without a contract that I used to browse the web, read email, shoot video and install apps. But the battery lasted a week so it's not a smartphone.

3 Posted by Dave Hulbert on 19 September 2010 | Permalink

I used to define a smartphone mobile OS as one that could multi-task on. That held up well in the 90s and early 2000s. Then the iPhone came along that couldn't multi-task but was considered "smart" and S40 got multi-tasking but was still considered "dumb".

4 Posted by Harri on 19 September 2010 | Permalink

The current OS discussion somehow misses one crucial point: Operators. e.g. In Europe they plan to build their own OS http://bit.ly/aisQyq

Take a closer look at what Vodafone CEO said in the Nokia World keynote http://bit.ly/cE7iVo (103:00->) They want to "decouple OS, device and apps as much as possible" and "decrease technical complexity and increase interoperability and free customer choice".

Notice the vertical model critique and how both closed and fragmented OS scenarios decrease operators' business. Hence they are willing to invest in e.g. interoperability.

The key question for any device company CEO is: How many my company devices are in the operators portfolio? Not which OS I am running. If the operators want to run their devices with their own OS, I need to be able to make devices run on that OS. And that goes for all OSes.

So is OS becoming irrelevant and not a question of life and death? If you can efficiently manage several OSes then more likely you end up to operators portfolio.

As pointed out earlier many companies already do this, so maybe they should put focus and some more effort to actually make capability to execute in multi-OS environment a business advantage instead of being frantic about "right OS".

5 Posted by Faruk Ateş on 20 September 2010 | Permalink

For me, the issue with your assessment that Nokia could do two Operating Systems just fine, “because Apple and Google and Microsoft all do so, too”, is mostly to do with experience and track record.

Apple may be my personal only favorite for having made two great OSes, but it is undeniable that Microsoft and Google have made highly successful OSes with lots of developer interest. That just isn't really the case for Nokia, who has yet to produce a first popular OS which yielded high third party developer interest.

Had I responded to your earlier Nokia post, I would've simply said this: how about Nokia start by making one good OS, rather than attempting to make two OSes which almost certainly are doomed to be no better than decent?

Nokia needs to learn about software, and I fear they're trying to run before they've yet learned to crawl, in this aspect.

6 Posted by Sebastien Givry on 29 September 2010 | Permalink

Seems to me that there are two definitions of smartphones. The one given by most "professionals", which focuses on OS and technical capabilities; and the one given by the consumer market; which focuses on enhanced consumer experience. Both are, to me, radically different and are one of the reasons why Nokia for example is still missing the point.

Most of you talk about OS, Apps, etc. From that prospective, the N85 is a smartphone. Even the N70!! You could do much more than calling, already have "apps", connect to the internet (hum...wap), have some degree of email integration (old "Integrator"), etc.

Now what consumers want in "smartphones" is not all the bits and bites inside; but the true ability for the phone to transcend the "traditional" phone experience with the little toys that go with it.

The Communicator was indeed a first step, but only in the professional area. The first one to go beyond was the Blackberry; but was very limited.

So first true smartphone was the iPhone. Why? Because as a consumer, it was bringing the same ease of use as the iPod brought to music for true web browsing (and sorry, but try to do that on a N95, which Nokia considers as smartphone!!), true picture viewing and sharing, etc...