When is a smartphone not a smartphone

[Cross-post: Originally written for corporate blog]

Has Nokia just killed the smartphone? Well, at least the definition of a smartphone anyway.
I’ve long become tired of the industry’s desire to market to consumers using the catch-all description of ‘smartphone’, and in recent months I’ve come to the conclusion that the term is largely devoid of any useful meaning.

Nokia has been behind a couple of stories in the last few months that have led me to this conclusion. First, the launch of the Nokia Asha 303; a S40 (of featurephone fame) device that features a 1Ghz processor, touchscreen and provides features and functions normally associated with what the average mobile consumer would define as a smartphone. Secondly, the acquisition of Smarterphone, an OS develop whose linux-based operating system will bring more advanced features to Nokia’s portfolio of entry-level handsets.

Both stories have led me back to the question of how we define a smartphone and whether or not the term has become redundant. This isn’t a new question of course, but activity over the last few months seems to have made it all the pertinent.

There was a time when smartphones were clearly defined and distinguishable from their poor relation, the featurephone. The moniker made sense as a way of segmenting devices and drawing attention to a new wave of technology and processing power entering the market.

During the early days, smartphones became defined by their features and functions; for example touchscreens, faster processors and the ability to email and access the ‘full’ web (not just mobile optimized sites). However, as is common, technology quickly trickles down and peculates through mass-market devices. And so definitions started to evolve. Our interpretation of a smartphone suddenly became defined by the ecosystems and operating systems being developed by the likes of RIM, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Smartphones were part of an ‘ecosystem’, they could be upgraded and customized with apps and multimedia content. But look at the Nokia Asha 303. It runs S40, a traditionally ‘featurephone’ OS unable to perform multitasking. Yet it does what the vast majority of consumers would consider a smartphone to be able to do. It can email, access Facebook, access the web, download apps, has a touchscreen and 5mp camera and features a 1Ghz processor. The only thing it can’t do is multitask. Is it a smartphones then?

Mobile hardware and software is homogenizing, and product differentiation today seems largely based on incremental improvements in performance, screen resolution or camera resolution. So where do we go from here?

Do we look to move the goal-posts once again to either include (or exclude) devices such as the Nokia Asha 303 or devices running Smarterphone’s software? Perhaps we mandate that smartphones must be able to multi-task (a possibly meaningless definition for the average consumers). Or, do we simply acknowledge that the term smartphone is increasingly redundant? What we have are mobile devices. Some can perform a certain function better than others, some are faster than others, others offer superior performance; but they are all mobile devices.

This actually has its benefits. Service providers and retailers will have to stop hiding behind the catch-all ‘smartphone’ strapline and start product matching devices according to consumers’ budgets and requirements.

If we don’t, where will we stop?

To be clear, I acknowledge that some devices are far superior to others. There are compromises that have to be made if you are going to ram so much functionality into a sub £100 device. The point is that the term smartphone is so grey that it doesn’t add any value to a consumer looking to evaluate products.
We can’t even guarantee a base-level of performance for smartphones any longer. I’ve seen critics suggest that selling the Nokia Asha 303 as a smartphone is dangerous given its [relatively] poor performance against an iPhone for example. This is absolutely right. This is the sort of think that drives buyer’s remorse and product returns. However the same is surely true of a new wave of sub £100 Android devices (and can anyone argue that these aren’t true ‘smartphones’?). Many of these can be hideously underpowered or feature poor screen technology that, like the Nokia Asha 303, puts them in stark contrast to a top of the range Android device. Yet these are typically promoted to consumers on par with every other smartphone on the market. There is almost never any differentiation outside of the OS version the device runs or the apps available to it.

Let’s stop leading consumers blindly down the ‘smartphone’ path without fully understanding what that means. Again, remove the smartphone moniker and start selling devices based on the features and functions most appropriate to the consumer’s budget and requirements.

And finally, if anyone starts using the term ‘hyperphone’ to distinguish between the next-gen devices and smartphones…….then please put me out to pasture.