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Point blank: I don’t agree with Mr. Litchfield’s opinion in his latest editorial at All About Symbian. I get his points, and will conceed that when you compare feature for feature, there are moments where mobiles have evolved/devolved. But I don’t agree with how the assessment is being done, nor the base of the assessment in his definitoin of a smartphone. I started to write a comment, then had to pull out the keyboard on my iPad to continue. I’ve got a lot to say.

My comment to his is as follows:

Ah, now we get to have some fun.

In 2009, I presented a definition for the term “smartphone” that would have been able to stand the test of market and time, and has stood up quite well to the evolution/devolution of hardware and software features. I don’t know that this (Symbian-slanted, post-N95 biased) article does justice to what was meant when the comment in the podcast (Rita, she poked my name into that mix) was opened. But hey, that’s what editorials are for right? Poke discussion and present an argument that enables everyone to come away having learning something they can teach to someone else.

With that said, my definition of a smartphone (from my 2009 Brighthand article on the subject):

Smartphones are mobile devices which utilize cellular and wireless software to enhance the user experience of mobile-enabled services by connecting to those services by direct ties into the operating system and hardware of the mobile device.

Now, this article. We can make the statement, and a true one, that the evolution of mobile devices (smart and feature phones) has primarily centered on curating a specific type of user experience (UX). And indeed, features are a part of that, but also we cannot miss the summation of those features into some specific experience. This is why we can and should judge the latest HTC models with Beats against the first 2 generations of Apple’s iPhone, Nokia’s XpressMusic and Sony/Sony-Ericsson’s Walkman series of devices – but not against every mobile device that has come with some series of fancy headphones and colorful markings. It doesn’t matter that one device has enhanced speakers if the overall behavior of the person using the branded product didn’t change their behavior/paradigm of relating to their world around them.

So, with that. Let’s talk some of the features here and the perspective of evolution/devolution:

– a metal body: valuing the cost of the commodities to make the bodies of mobiles today, it would seem that using metal today is actual a step backwards. Of course, I’m basing this not against the long term viability of metal versus plastic, but against the cost associating with producing that metal body against the costs of plastics. Add into that the R&D costs for making each of those materials colorful, durable, personalized, etc., and we can make the statement that even those devices “feel” cheaper (marketing perception enforced by a certain type of industrial-oriented thought), that the use of plastics is in fact a positive evolution – if the software lives longer than the original manufacturer’s support of the device 😉

– key-lock toggle: not my favorite example from the article, but since its there… we first saw this when the Palm Treo came on board as a innovative necessity, and its been extended into a software metaphor by several touch-screen only models. Again, the perception here has to sit with (a) was there a better solution that a manual or virtual button, (b) had the previous use of this feature been better than current. Again, if we sit with “feel,” then we we have all kinds of bias. So, my opinion is simple here: we’ve gone from a hard button design, to a mostly virtual and gesture implementation. We haven’t seen anyone take the proximity sensor or AI capacities in any of these mobiles to make that hard/virtual button something used in the past only. Therefore, the conclusion is that it hasn’t evolved, but in fact hasn’t kept up with the other technologies which could have made this feature something better utilized. In fact, RIM has done a magnetic switch on their case and devices to do this for years. The fact that its not moved further is an indictment to non-progress.

– separate controls for multimedia functions: While it was nice to see on the N95 and other devices, the fact that buttons are context-dependent, not transformable by software, and therefore more easily become learned behaviors, means that we need to see these are the places where this has evolved. It has. That is, when the context of the application on the device, along with possible hardware enhancements like haptics, are added. Whoops. Guess we aren’t evolved there.

– digital compass: this is a neat feature. However, in every mobile device that implements it, we only see it used within mapping/LBS applications. We’ve yet to see weather applications take advantage of this (“hey, where is that wind coming from in relation to where I’m riding my bicycle,” for example). We are still asking the map where north is. Same as when the feature was initially added to devices. Not evolved there either.

– tempered glass: We now have glass on touch-oriented mobile devices which is less prone to scratching, but has concerted weak points. This has to be compared to the scratch-prone, but bounce-resistant screens resistive screens of today and the past. I could drop my Treo (to reference a old device with that older screen type), but have confidence in it that it could still be functional, even if the digitizer under it went kaput. That’s not the case with this kind of glass screen. A break of this screen is just about an unusable device. Though, there are websites that prove me otherwise here. We’ve not moved therefore.

– kickstand: I want to say this is a foolish feature. If a device is made and marketed for media consumption, it should be able to literally stand up for that. A kickstand helps. But, the use case for this feature is upon those groups whom are using a mobile device in a stationary setting as their entertainment portal. I qualify here (my mobile is my TV, laptop, radio, etc.). And I don’t see the feature there or not as a point of mobile advancement in any direction.

– digital microphones: We’ve evolved. At least when evolution is a device that never has the other end of a conversation ever complaining about background noise.

I’ve picked apart that article more than enough. Let’s just say that I don’t necessarily agree that mobiles have evolved much at all from their Treo/Psion/SE T616/etc roots. There are moments when we can see items about to happen. But, as I preface with my definition of a smartphone, if the end result of the user experience is that some behavior was changed, refined, or outright removed, then we can say that evolution has happened. Smartphones have not so much as done that. And I don’t see that this article, nor most of those who cover mobile, as paying attention specifically to that.

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