What is a smartphone?

This is a question that I asked myself today. Of late, I have been reading and posting about top-of-the-line models including the iPhone 4, Motorola Droid, HTC Incredible, Nexus One, Dell Lightning etc and the respective Operating Systems that each one runs on. And I wondered if I needed to update my definition of what a smartphone is in 2010.

About.com offers an interesting definition and perspective, pointing out that smartphones offer functionality that you would find on a personal computer or PDA like the ability to access high speed internet, sync your email, run productivity applications etc. The article also references an era when we possessed separate cell phones and PDAs like the Palm Pilot (where are they today?)

So we have a distinction between a smartphone and a 'feature phone' depending on the extent to which the phone can perform at least some of the  functions that we do on our computers or laptops. But obviously the amount of things that we can do on a smartphone today is far more than what we could do, say 1 year ago. So this is my personal definition of a smartphone in 2010. It is based on the hardware and software and I have included examples at the high-end and low-end, to describe what I mean.

1) Operating System
A smartphone today needs to be running one of these operating systems - Android, iPhone OS, S^3 or Bada. Add to that list, in the not-so-distant future, Blackberry OS 6.0,Windows Phone 7 or MeeGo. Does it mean that a phone running Symbian S60 is not a smartphone? Does an Atom processor mean a netbook is not a laptop? The answer to both questions is 'no' but this is a time-bound answer. Newer and more powerful operating systems have already begun to re-define a smartphone and what it can do. I consider my Nokia E61 to be a fantastic business phone, but I'm not sure its a smartphone any more.

2) Apps and widgets
Apple showed the way, and now other players are following suit. Apps enable functionality on your phone as much as software does on your PC/ notebook. A smartphone manufacturer has to support his device with an App Store offering apps for gaming, business, news, music and a plethora of other needs. You don't need to have a smart phone to use apps, but the number, and quality of apps that can run (and run simultaneously) on a smartphone will distinguish it from others.

3) Touchscreen interface
It's not my cup of tea, but touch interfaces are becoming ubiquitous on smart phones. Some offer touchscreen + full QWERTY but capacitive touch functionality is becoming de facto on smart phones.Touchscreen displays also allow for larger screens, thereby increasing useability

4) Display
Whether it is the iPhone 4 Retina Display or the Super AMOLED display on Samsung's Wave and Galaxy phones, hi-res displays are going to differentiate smartphones from the pack. When you bear in mind that mobiles are becoming thin clients, accessing all we need on the Web, we are going to spend more and more time on them.A fantastic display makes it easier to do this

5) Processor Power and RAM
A 1 GHz processor has been the norm on the top end phones we've seen in 2010 and we can expect the computing power to go up in the near future.

6) Bells and Whistles

Merely having a camera or a music player (even a music player the quality of the iPhone) will not make a smartphone any more. These are additional functionalities that can be extended into feature phones, or even a dedicated range of music phones such as the ones put out by Sony and Nokia. But inclusions like GPS, a 10 or 12 megapixel camera, HD recording and playback, will differentiate your smartphone from the pack.

So what will be the price range for smartphones in 2010? Most manufacturers are clustered at the upper end with the Sony Xperia 10, iPhone and Motorola Droid clustered at a Rs. 30-35000 price point. Anchoring the lower price point is Samsung Wave which has been priced at Rs. 19100 in the Indian market. If this is too steep for you, take heart from the fact that entry level prices for new models should reduce a few years down the line. And companies like HTC, Samsung and Nokia will do their best to enable even non-smartphones with more features. And with almost every company other than Apple and Blackberry building phones on the Android platform, I'm sure greater functionality will enter into affordable handsets.

Exciting times ahead and I'm going to stick out my neck and say; if you're planning to upgrade your phone, wait a bit if you can. The market picture could change in just 6 months and will surely be different one year down the line.


  1. Do you see the emergence of two or three dominant platforms(ecosystems)for smartphones around which competition will revolve ? Apple's,Android and Windows 7 may be...

  2. Yes, I was actually going to post on the platform ownership fight. And how the focus has shifted from brand to platform, UI and implementation of OS. Now that top-end phones have hit hardware parity, platform and content/apps will differentiate user experience.

  3. hi nisha...wat do you hae to say about the samsung 8500 aka wave???

  4. Hey Divyank, Samsung Wave has dream hardware specs and apparently a smooth user interface. Where I hesitate is whether Bada OS has a future (apps, support, user base?). I would pitch in favor of Android at this stage. Then again, anything earlier than Froyo is so outdated as Android is still WIP. If you are cool with the possibility of wanting to change your phone in a year, buy the Wave. I'm sure you will have a good user experience.


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