08 November 2009

Smartphones, what can you do with it? Do you really need one?

Cell phones have undoubtedly become an integral part of our lives. I’m pretty sure you never leave your home without one. But how many of you use it for more than making calls or sending text messages? Do you know what a modern smartphone is capable of? I’m guessing most of you do, but when Deependra asked me to post about something interesting related to technology, I thought why not write about smartphones. After all, they are the future of computing devices. And personally I believe desktops and bulky laptops will soon become a thing of the past, and these tiny mobile computing devices will dominate.

What is a smartphone ?

Some of you might be wondering what a smartphone really is? And how does it differ from a normal cell phone? Well, the answer is not as clear cut as it used to be few years back. Conventionally, a smartphone is a mobile phone that runs a mobile operating system and offers PC-Like functionality. Perhaps the main distinguishing feature is the mobile operating system, which provides a standardized platform for 3rd party application developers. This allows the users to download and install 3rd party applications to enhance their phone’s functionality beyond what is originally supported by the manufacturer. Software capabilities of smart phones generally differ from a regular phone due to:

  • Rich web clients and browsers that can provide PC-like browsing capabilities
  • Fully fledged Email clients (supporting SMTP/POP/IMAP/ActiveSync)
  • Advanced internet based application support (VOIP services, Instant Messengers, Social networking)
  • Advanced PC syncing capabilities (Contacts/calendar entries/Organizer)
  • Support for running multiple applications simultaneously
  • Support for custom GPS navigation applications (e.g.: Google Maps, Garmin, etc.)
  • Allowing 3rd party applications to access all the hardware features of the phone (this has led to the development of so many creative and innovative applications)
On top of this, smartphones generally offer better hardware features too, such as:

  • Faster micro processors (based on Advanced RISC Machine : ARM chips)
  • Advanced graphics capabilities (2D and 3D hardware acceleration)
  • More memory (more RAM for running applications and expandable storage for file storage)
  • Better connectivity options (i.e : High-speed internet)
  • Full QWERTY keyboards
  • Large high resolution screens with touch input capability
  • Built-in GPS units with compasses
However, as I said before the differences between a smartphone and a regular phone are fading away as the later has now started to provide some of the smartphone like features. Therefore, the features mentioned above are no longer exclusive only to smartphones, but as you go further apart in the scale of smart phones and regular phones, differences become obvious.

Almost all phones support Java Platform Micro Edition (formally known as J2ME). This allows 3rd party Java applications to be installed and run on any phone (including standard phones). In the early days, Java applications couldn’t do much, because they didn’t have access to most of the core phone features. But things are changing with new revisions. However, because regular phones are manufactured with limited hardware capabilities (to reduce the cost and increase portability and battery life), they are still not as versatile as smartphones even with Java.

Mobile Operating systems

There are a number of smartphone operating systems, some of the most popular ones are listed below:
  • Symbian
  • Windows Mobile
  • iPhone OS
  • Android*
  • BlackBerry
  • Palm WebOS*
  • Maemo* (an upcoming OS for Nokia smartphones)
  • Linux
* based on Linux.

And some of the leading smartphone manufacturers are:
  • Nokia (Symbian, Maemo)
  • SonyEricsson (Symbian, Windows Mobile)
  • Apple (iPhone OS)
  • Samsung (Symbian, Windows mobile, Android)
  • HTC (Windows Mobile, Android)
  • BlackBerry (BlackBerry OS)
  • Palm (Palm OS)
If you are looking to buy a smartphone, then choosing the correct operating system is as important as any other phone feature (i.e: Number of megapixels in the camera, screen size/resolution/type, battery life etc.). The chart below shows the market share of Smartphone operating systems as of Q2/2009 (Canalys).

As you can see, Symbian is the dominating OS followed by Blackberry and Apple. Blackberry OS is popular because of the business oriented BlackBerry phone and it’s unique hardware and software support (QWERTY keyboard, email web etc.). But now, other big players (Nokia, Samsung) are also coming up with smartphones having the same hardware and software features to the Blackberry (but running a different OS). Therefore, I speculate that Blackberry market share might drop in the future.

Reason for Iphone OS’s popularity is obvious: The Apple iPhone. But I don’t think iPhone OS is popular due to it’s smartphone capabilities. Majority of the iPhone users are buying it for the iPod (music) capabilities and as a fashion accessory. Every teenage needs an iPhone, because they think its cool and hip. But If you compare an iPhone with another high end smartphone by another company (i.e Nokia or SonyEricsson) you will quickly notice that iPhone is inferior in terms of hardware capabilities. But Apple has managed to make the iPhone a successful smart phone due to their creative marketing strategies and application store support (Apple App Store).

But perhaps the most exiting smartphone OS out there right now the Android OS by Google. So far it has a very low market share because the OS itself and devices supporting it are new. The operating system was first launched just over a year ago. But there are plenty of Android devices out in the market right now and more are coming out each day. With the support of Google and huge open source community behind it, tables will turn pretty soon and Android will become a strong competitor in the smart phone OS industry.

New trends

Social networking is the buzzword in today’s smartphone world. Every smartphone OS is now putting out a ton of applications and widgets to support popular social networking services like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter etc.. If you look at some of the recent phones, you will see that social network integrations run deep in to phone’s operating system. On some phones for example, now you can see the latest Facebook profile picture along with the status message when someone is calling you. You can have all your favorite news feeds and live weather/traffic updates right on the home screen. Access to all sorts of information is right there at your fingertips.

Business capabilities of smartphones are also getting more advanced each day. Sending and receiving emails has never been easier, you can sync your phone with multiple email accounts. With Office packages now you can create or edit spreadsheets and word documents right from the mobile phone. With full QWERTY physical keyboards typing on a phone is no longer an issue.

Few years back, having a MP3 player in your phone was considered a huge convenience. But now, with high-speed internet and all these connectivity options you have access to more than few MP3s or small video clips stored on your memory card. There are live TV support and video on demand capabilities with support for online gaming.

GPS based services are another fast evolving trend in mobile phones. With almost all smartphones now having an integrated GPS unit, GPS navigation has become a standard feature. All you have to do is speak the name of the place you want to go, and then the phone will take you there with turn by turn voice guided instructions. With options like Geotagging now you can keep your friends or family informed of your location allowing them and you to find one another easily. When taking a picture or a video, the phone will automatically the tag it with location information, so you don’t have to worry about renaming or entering those details manually. Possibilities are endless when you couple a smartphone with a GPS and high-speed internet.

Are there any drawbacks?

Everything about a smartphone seems so wonderful and tempting, isn’t it? But all these features come at a cost. To begin with, the price of a smartphone is usually several times more compared to a regular phone. But that is not the only compromise you have to make. Due to all these new technologies, a smartphone is usually very bulky and heavier than a regular phone. Furthermore, the high end components and connectivity options have a negative impact on the battery life. A typical high end smartphone with all of its bells and whistles turned ON will not last more than a day. That means you have to constantly keep an eye on the battery meter. And then, for most of the above fun features to work, you need a high speed always connected internet/data plan (which are normally expensive in most countries). So, at the end of the day you have to pay more for the phone and for your contract then tolerate a heavier, bulker device that won’t last more than a day on a single charge.

Is it for you?

Well…., now I guess you have an idea what is a smartphone, and what it can do and its drawbacks. Deciding whether you really want one or not should depend on your needs. If you are just a regular user wanting only a phone for its calling and texting features then I see no reason for spending more to get a bulky device that you need to charge every day. But if you are one of those who want to be always up-to-date and with touch with all your friends (eMail, news, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc..) then a regular phone will not simply cut it.

(*The author, Hasitha Ariyaratne, hails from Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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Anonymous said...

I would like to thank my friend, Hasitha, for authoring this comprehensive article on smartphones. I have observed that most of the smartphone users are passionate about their devices. In recent times, iPhones and other smartphones have even challenged the net-books. I was very enthusiastic to know about the smartphones and hence, I requested Hasitha to write a post explaining the basics of smartphones. I believe that each of us has our own need and desire when it comes to mobile phones. After reading this article, I am sure that the readers will be able get a fair idea about smartphones which may be helpful while choosing an appropriate device for them.

Shahid Mukadam on November 9, 2009 at 12:08 AM said...

I must say Hasitha has done some helluva job, Wanted to ask would an N95 8GB qualify for a smart phone and can I change the operating system?

Anonymous said...

A wonderful post. Thank you author for making clear the basic understanding of smartphones. Despite the popularity and silky size of iPhones, I think Nokia is the leader even in smartphone market. Nokia is now pushing towards making smartphones that will require less apps. N900, which is to be launched with its full mozilla based mobile browser, it will not require more than half of the apps required for Apple or Android. Besides, the new vesion of Symbian is due to come soon, which will bring a fresh look like that of Maemo. Competition is stil going to be fierce, since their are more players in the market, but if Nokia maintains their solid hardware approach with the new Maemo and improved Symbain OS, they will continue to dominate the smartphone market.

Mehdi Eghbal said...

Thank you Hashita for your brief and informative post. I am one of those guys very interested in having a smart phone in hand but still can not make a compromise between monthly fees and the nice features of a smart phone...
Thank you Deependra for providing us with this opportunity to learn.

Prajwol on November 9, 2009 at 6:25 PM said...

This is very well composed Smartphone 101 post, kudos to the writer.

Personally, I use an "outmoded" cell phone, because I strongly believe cell phone are there to receive calls, which mine does without a glitch. And, I have access to internet almost 24x7, so I never felt the desire to upgrade to a Smartphone. However, when I go out for shopping, I wished if I had a Smartphone to compare the prices between the different stores. But, primarily, at this moment I can live without it.

I am looking forward to the further development of android platform. Android's open access to developer will ensure greater things to come from a cell phone at lower prices.

I sligtly disagree with the writer on iPhone being limited to Hip and Fashion accessory. Though restrictive in the usage and to the developers, with iPhone come’s the reliability, credibility, and exceptional customer service of Apple Corp, which is unmatched. That piece of phone has really revolutionized how we perceive our cell phone to work.

AP said...

A good article, thanks to the author.
In my opinion, I don't see anything now that a net-book can do what a Smartphone can't do. It would be worthy investment to spend more on a powerful laptop for accessibility and a good mobile phone for mobility. right?

Dilip Acharya on November 10, 2009 at 6:26 PM said...

The tragedy with smart phones are that, they are not always smart.

Two years back when I purchased a cell phone, it was "very smart", after six months time span it became "little smart", now it is 'somehow smart' and I am sure after few more months, it will be 'no more smart', I've been regularly updating it's firmware, though .

BTW, I was always curious to know one thing. Is it possible to completely replace the Os of the cell phone like we can do with pc's (like changing from Windows to Linux) ?

Thanks for this very informative post.

Winnie the poohi on November 11, 2009 at 4:26 AM said...

Liked this article. Pretty comprehensive! I am a bit wary of smart phones though.. i like my usual call/text/radio/music player combo :) with camera thrown in for good measure

Hasitha on November 12, 2009 at 12:15 PM said...

Thanks for all the encouraging comments.

Shahid Mukadam
Any phone having a mobile operating system qualifies as a smartphone. Therefore the Nokia N95 8GB is a smartphone because it is running Symbian 9.2 Release 3.1 (commonly referred to as S60 3rd edition). But, unfortunately you cannot change the OS on N95. Smartphone operating systems are highly customized for phone hardware. Therefore in order for you to change it, you have to find tailor made version of the operating system for your specific phone. Up till now Nokia has never released a single firmware update that actually changes OS or even the OS version (i.e Symbian version).However they do release firmware updates for fixing bugs, improving performance and for adding minor features (these updates are more like Windows updates / service packs you get on your Windows PC). However, few manufacturers (i.e Apple and Windows mobile phone manufacturers) are allowing their customers to update only the OS version. For example Apple recently released their new iPhone 3Gs with iPhone OS version 3.1, but previous iPhone 3G users could also update their OS to the new 3.1. But NO company that I know has allowed switching to a completely different operating system.

If you are interested in updating the firmware for bug fixes , you can do it with the Nokia Software Updater. But remember: Updating the firmware could completely erase all your personal data (contacts, messages, MP3s etc..), and if something goes wrong (power failure / system crash) your phone may become permanently unusable. So be careful.

Yes, buying a smartphone on a contact is usually expensive. You might not pay a huge amount upfront, but when you add up all the monthly installments, it will be more than the price of an unlocked phone. When I see an interesting phone, I wait few months for the price to come down, then buy the unlocked version and use it with a basic plan. That way you don’t have to worry about things like using it overseas with a different operator when travelling abroad or terminating/switching contracts before the term ends.

For most users a smartphone might be an overkill. But as you said, there are times when those features can come in handy. And I think there are many out there who want a bit more out of their phones like: social networking, email and media capabilities but don’t want to break the bank to have those features. Due to this, many phone manufacturers are now coming up with cheap regular phones added with extra custom applications to mimic smartphone features, high speed connectivity options and QWERTY keyboards. Try looking in to one of those.

I also agree that iPhone certainly did revolutionize the smartphone industry. Not because it was a technical breakthrough, but because of Apples marketing strategy and the iPhone craze in the U.S. There were smartphones long before the iPhone came (with touchscreen support and all that). But American market was not exposed to this technology; they got to know about smartphones with iPhone. With the iPod already a big hit, success of iPod + cell phone is a no brainer. I think this is the main reason for iPhone’s success, NOT because it is a smartphone. Apple has a good reputation for delivering reliable products, but if you consider the U.S market, iPhone is not a big hit when you consider the customer support and reliability aspects, its not a problem with the iPhone as a product, the problem I with AT&T’s network. Some reports indicate that there are over 30% call drop rate for iPhone on AT&T. But still people buy the iPhone like crazy even if they have a very bad service. Why?

Hasitha on November 12, 2009 at 12:16 PM said...

Yes, I agree. But a netbook has its advantages too. It has a larger screen, a larger keyboard and runs a regular OS which has more application support. For someone who needs a very portable computer (for word processing, presentations, etc..) a netbook might be more convenient. But for keeping in touch with your friends and family over social networks, browsing the internet and occasional word processing task, a smartphone perhaps is better considering the portability factor.

Dilip Acharya
As I said before, a mobile operating system is highly customized for the phone hardware and phone hardware is highly specialized. But if you take a normal PC, underlying architecture and peripherals are standardized. However, in theory you should be able to replace the OS, because the firmware is changeable; but in real life you can’t. Because, no company is taking the effort to do so and I don’t think anyone will, since the cost of releasing and maintaining different OS editions in a rapidly changing industry like in smartphones simply doesn’t justify the cost. Well, at least that is my opinion.

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