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.