What’s a Smartphone, and Why Should You Consider Buying One?
A friend of mine always says that he’ll never look at a mobile phone unless it packs a camera, a Web browser, and a death ray. Of course, he’s joking (at least about the death ray), but you can’t deny that today’s crop of mobiles does a lot more than just make calls. In fact, it’s hard to find a mobile that doesn’t let you do text messaging, take pictures or video, play games, or listen to music.
But there’s another category of mobile phones that do even more. They’re called smartphones, and they’re changing the way people look at, get, and use information.
What’s a smartphone?
That question is tough to answer, mainly because there’s no agreed-upon definition of the term. The best way to think of a smartphone is a device that can make calls using a cellular service, but which also has the features and functions of a small desktop computer or PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). Like a computer or a PDA, a smartphone runs an operating system and you can install applications on it. A majority of smartphones run one of the following operating systems:
- Windows Mobile
- RIM Blackberry
- Palm OS
Each smartphone operating system has similar features, including Web browsing, a built-in camera, the ability to connect to a wireless network or to sync with a desktop computer, email and instant messaging, and to play back multimedia. With additional software, they can do a lot more.
Smartphones have been around since the early 1990s. One of the first true smartphones was the Nokia 9000 series Communicator. Released in 1996, the Communicator sported a number of interesting features, including fax, email, and basic Web browsing. If you’ve seen the movie “The Saint”, starring Val Kilmer, you’ve seen the Communicator in action (well, sort of). The Communicator never really caught on outside of Europe. Even for the time, it was big and bulky. It definitely wasn’t something that you wanted to carry around with you. However, a number of software developers created some interesting applications for the Communicator.
Smartphones, though, have really evolved since then. They’re small, they’re light, and are packed with features. And the devices are hugely popular in Asia and Europe. In these areas, mobile data plans are often cheaper than landlines and even high-speed Internet. And mobile services are often more reliable, especially in Asia. As you might expect, smartphone users not only use their devices to communicate via voice or text, but also to surf the Web, and download music. In Japan — which many consider being smartphone heaven — some people read novels on their phones and even make payments at vending machines.
While the smartphone market in North America isn’t as advanced as its counterparts in Asia and Europe, over the last few years our choices have become wider and so have the features and functions available to smartphone users.
Why would you want a smartphone anyway?
Some people, myself included, are perfectly happy with a mobile phone that can make calls and send and receive text messages. That said, I can understand the appeal of the smartphone. You have the power of a computer literally in the palm of your hand. With a good smartphone, you can keep in touch by phone or email, browse the Web, grab your favourite RSS feeds, listen to music or watch videos, and take snapshots. All with a single device.
The basic software that many smartphones pack is impressive. In addition to an email client, a Web browser, and a media player, you also get a calendar, a personal information manager, and more. On top of that, you can download a lot of software for your device. You can get games, productivity applications, translation tools, eBook readers, and more. Some of the software is free; some you have to pay for. But all of it turns a gadget that looks like a mobile phone into something a whole lot more than that.
One big reason for getting a smartphone is that it combines several devices into one small package. Why lug around a mobile phone, an MP3 player, a digital media player, and PDA when you can have all of that (and more) in one light unit? Smartphones are the ultimate in portability, especially if you need to take your information and entertainment with you.
The range of smartphones that are on the market is truly astonishing. While those of us in North America don’t have the choices that are available to folks in other parts of the world, the smartphone offerings here aren’t too shabby and are gradually improving. Here are a few highlights.
Nokia, as mentioned earlier, was a pioneer in the smartphone market. And the company has kept itself on the cutting edge of the technology with its Nseries smartphones — most notably, the N80 crop of phones. In addition to the basic software that comes bundled with the phones, you can download just about any kind of application — from games to productivity tools to media players.
Not to be outdone, Nokia’s main rival Motorola has its Q series of smartphones which really give Nokia’s wares a run for their money. In fact, the Q is built for work and for fun — it packs stereo-quality speakers, an easy-to-use keyboard, and a portable set of Windows applications (it runs Windows Mobile if you haven’t already guessed.
HTC is also making a run at being a major player in the market. Their series of smartphones look like a cross between the devices put out by companies like Nokia and Motorola, and the iPhone. You get a touchscreen or a QWERTY keyboard, all in a small and very attractive package.
Of course, I can’t forget the Blackberry from RIM. It’s considered by some to be the smartphone for business use. So much so that just about every corporate road warrior that you see has a Blackberry in his or her pocket or clipped to their belts. The current generation of Blackberry devices are easy to use, pack a lot of features and functions, and look good too.
Being an intelligent and careful consumer, you probably want to get as much information as you can about smartphones before you even consider making a purchase. Fortunately, there’s a Smartshow_IMlot of information about these devices available on the Web. And I’m not just talking about the marketing copy that comes from phone makers and resellers, either.
The Smartphone Show is an interesting video podcast that looks at the latest devices out there. It’s definitely worth as view. Both Smartphone Thoughts and Smartphone Blast! offer daily news and reviews on this topic. Both sites look at not only phones, but the applications that run on them. They’re a great way to learn more about what a smartphone can do.
And if you want an in-depth look at how smartphones work, then you should definitely check out this article.
Smartphones are a small, light, and easy to use way of creating, getting, and sharing information. Downloading multimedia content is just the beginning. With the proliferation of mobile-enabled Web applications (like Google Docs, various flavors of Web-based email, and tools like Remember the Milk ), a mobile phone becomes a portable workstation and productivity tool.
For work or for play (or even a little of both), a smartphone is a great choice if you want to take a powerful and flexible tool with you wherever you go.