The End of the Smartphone?

I’m a mobile geek and I like my smartphone toys but I’m starting to wonder if they are really necessary. Smartphone sales are increasing but I have this wild theory that in a few years they will cease to exist as a separate class of devices.

First a definition. Not everyone even agrees what constitutes a smartphone. For the purpose of this argument it’s a device running a named mobile operating system including Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm, Blackberry and the iPhone’s OS X. Smartphones generally have full web browsers, fast processors, lots of memory and, except for the Blackberry, support installing native applications in addition to Java ones.

What’s going to knock out the smartphone? Look for a one-two punch from ever more capable feature phones and Linux, especially Android.

There’s a perception that you need a smartphone to have advanced applications and services on a phone. That used to be true but Java ME and the Real Time Operating Systems (RTOS) of popular feature phones are getting to the point where they can do almost everything that a branded OS can.

I don’t really care about OS labels but there are certain features that I require in a phone. Here’s my list. Note that all of these can be found in at least some mass-market feature phones.

  • Synchronize Contacts, Calendar, To-Do’s and Notes between phone and PC – I use this feature heavily but it’s hardly exclusive to smartphones. All but the very cheapest Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones come with free synchronization software that works very well indeed. Motorola has PC Tools which costs extra. Samsung, LG and the other Asian phone manufacturers don’t seem to offer any sync software but there are various 3rd party and free synchronization applications that work with most of these phones.
  • An extensive library of installable applications – The number and variety of Java ME applications is a match for what’s available as native applications for any of the popular smartphones. Java has file system managers, email, SSH and FTP clients, mapping programs, RSS readers, password managers and thousands of games.
  • Application access to phone features like contacts, calendar, gps and network – This doesn’t really exist yet regardless of platform. Stupid “security” restrictions keep users from using really being able to use either Java or smartphone native applications to their fullest with phone resources. Application signing and/or hacks are generally needed to get these types of applications working on any platform. There are a few exceptions, like Motorola’s iDEN feature phones which allow users to grant unsigned Java apps blanket GPS access, something AFAIK no other platform does.
  • System level Copy and Paste – This is a must for me, whether it’s copying a mailing addresses from an email or SMS or pasting a URL into the browser, I can’t live without copy and paste. Smartphones, with the exception of the iPhone and pre 6.1 Windows Mobile Standard all support some sort of copy/paste. This is less common on feature phones but it exists. Most Sony-Ericsson phones let you copy and paste to and from any input field – even across applications including Java apps. Some versions of the much maligned Motorola RAZR feature a rudimentery copy and paste function.
  • Task Switching – This another thing that is essential to me and also probably the biggest differentiator of smartphones. Most feature phones can only load one program at a time. But again there are exceptions, Sony Ericsson again leads the way with the ability to suspend and switch between applications. Motorola iDEN’s, even cheap prepaid models like the i425, go one better and actually seem to multi-task Java applications. I can suspend Opera Mini while it’s loading a page, switch to a Java notepad application to jot something down and when I go back to Opera the page is fully loaded.
  • A full featured media players – Pretty much a tie here. Loads of feature phones have capable audio and video players.
  • A decent camera – Another tie. I’ve yet to see a great camera on any phone. My N95 is OK but it doesn’t come close to the quality of even an entry level digital camera. Some feature phones have pretty good cameras (again mostly Sony Ericcsons) and some have awful ones.

Given the abilities found in some feature phones it seems that it would be possible to build one every bit as capable as the best smartphone. And all other things being equal, it should be lighter, cheaper, easier to operate and have longer battery life than the equivalent smartphone.

I think we are about to see an explosion of inexpensive feature phones running nameless operating systems but with abilities and performance rivaling today’s smartphones. Thank the iPhone for this. It’s raised ordinary consumer’s expectations of what a mobile phone can do. Normobs want iPhone-like features at the traditional “free with 2 year contract” price point. Carriers and manufacturers can and will meet this demand by building iPhone-lites using off the shelf RTOS and Java applications.

Then there is Google which is building Android to dominate mobile advertising and cement it’s position as biggest and most profitable tech company. The big G is spending millions to build and give away a mobile OS and hardware reference design more powerful than Symbian, WinMo, Palm or Blackberry. Hardware manufacturers can build Android phones with zero licensing costs and minimal hardware design expense to provide another cheap alternative to the iPhone and to traditional smartphones.

It’s really not so much that the smartphone will die but that every phone will become a smartphone. There will always be high end devices but it will be harder and harder for Windows Mobile, Palm, Symbian, RIM and even Apple to differentiate themselves.

These changes will ultimately be good for the mobile ecosystem. The smartphone features that only 10% of users currently enjoy will go mainstream. As phones with advanced PIM functions, copy and paste, full web browsers like Opera Mini, apps like Google Maps and Mail and iTunes like content portals become the norm we will see a mobile computing surge that will make the PC and wired Web revolution of the last 30 years pale in comparison.

What do you think? Will the expansion of advanced features to mainstream handsets do away will the smartphone market? Comments please.

9 thoughts on “The End of the Smartphone?

  1. I think you are pretty right-end of UIQ would be great example and it show how hard is maintain your own system. And what do you say about installation in Symbian – I agree. It is really annoying when it say that program havenĀ“t right certification or it expiried. But Java programs? Almost every java program runs on my Nokia N97. Great pitty that platform UIQ died, but Symbian in N97 look like UIQ, so I find some replace which is very familiar to me and it has touch screen(more better than in P1i, which I have before). I think most of users is afraid of Symbian because it look too complex, but it is about to find where is what and than it is very easy understanding system.

  2. Pingback: What Is To Become Of The Smartphones?

  3. You forgot to mention that Java ME also supports SIP. Another thing to bear in mind is that the networks are switching to IMS. IMS client devices need lots of power which puts the current generation of smartphones at an advantage for the time being since they have more powerful hardware specs.

  4. My only definition of the “smart” in Smart Phone is location based awareness. You see a tiny, tiny fraction of what is possible in the iPhone’s support for Google maps.

    Don’t care about copy/paste, business junk, the ability to scan a businesscard ( SRSLY WTF? with that one )…all I ask is that the device know where it is in time and space. Use cell tower triangulation or GPS or bluetooth pings to other phones, whatever. Once the phone knows where it is and processes everything through that, it is truly SMART and an actual benefit to the user.

    Android better deliver Location Awareness in spades, elegant and easy to use. If they do, then yeah the other mobile OS will be in big trouble.

  5. AC, a stock iPhone may not be a smartphone but a jail-broken one meets my definition.

  6. Thanks for the comment Miron,

    I think most of the smarphone OS vendors (except possibly Palm) will survive but they will have trouble competing in the market for consumer smart devices and be reduced to niche markets.

    I agree that a proprietary OS has an advantage in terms of being able to develop unique features and keep them exclusive with secrecy and patents. Apple does this very well and the faithful are loyal and willing to pay the “Apple Tax” for great design and exclusivity., I’m not so sure about Blackberry. They may have invented mobile push email but now lots of vendors (Good, Microsoft, Nokia, Funambol) are doing it. As you say Backberry OS is very well done and everything “just works” but Blackberry is also expensive for individuals when you consider the premium that carriers charge for Blackberry data plans.

    There are also tremendous costs associated with maintaining and enhancing an OS. Cost of a device is a big differentiator or for mass market consumer devices. Blackberry and to a lesser Windows Mobile are strong in the enterprise which is willing to pay more for security and reduced support costs.

    Copying on the E61 works just like it does in Windows – hold down the shift key and use the arrow keys to select text then Ctrl-C to copy and Ctrl-P to paste. Unfortunately copy only works with editable text areas. I wish I could copy from web pages in the browser.

    I don’t think Symbian is Linux based, it was originally developed by Psion for their PDA’s long before Linux.

  7. I think that the ‘end of the smartphone’ is a natural progression and it’s already happening. BlackBerry has seen huge growth in the consumer market in the last year and ironically enough a significant proportion of their new users don’t even have data plans.

    However, I don’t think differentiation is going to be an issue for the existing ‘smartphone’ manufacturers that have their own proprietary OS. The current differentiators that exist between the smartphone platforms will probably continue. It will be more of a question of “which smartphone is right for me” rather than “should I get a smartphone”.

    – BlackBerry’s differentiators are their strong enterprise offering because of BES integration and data encryption and BlackBerry OS’s strong integration into the hardware.

    – iPhone is a very well built consumer focused interface.

    – WinMob’s diffferentiator is the large number of applications available.

    – Symbian’s proprietary processing technology made it the most popular platform.

    BUT as you mentioned, the fact that Android is supposed to be free is definately an issue for WinMob and Symbian’s licensing business model but not really for Apple or RIM because they have proprietary OS’s. Nokia almost owns a majority stake in Symbian so I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to get another 2% to book Symbian’s revenues and invest millions in perfecting the OS for Nokia phones.

    To say that Android will be more powerful than the others remains to be seen. iPhone OS and Symbian are both based on Linux kernal. Also, don’t underestimate the value that an OS designed for and by a manufacturer has. BlackBerry OS is beautifully integrated into the hardware, same goes for iPhone. Android will be built to support a variety of competing hardware manufacturers (all the ones that currently don’t have their own OS).

    P.S. I also have an E61i and the copy/paste functions are non-existent!

  8. I would argue that the iPhone is a high end feature phone rather than a smartphone — I’ll stick with my Nokia E61i, though its copy & paste functions are surprisingly lacking!

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