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Cat in a box

21/6/09

Without wanting to come over all Schrödinger, if a smartphone isn’t used to do anything smart is it still a smart? We’ve always struggled with the definition of smart, feature and PDA.
The cause celeb of the smartphone world is the iPhone. This is of course better than a feature phone because there is a full SDK and you program in a proper language not Java. Android tries to make Java a proper language by giving it a new name and letting you do libraries but we are slowly finding that who you are is as important to what you are allowed to do with Android as it is with anything else. They may say they chuck the code over the fence and it’s yours to do what you like with but only for you.

Sometimes it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. Of the 1bn phones sold a year fewer than 20% are any flavour of open. The vast majority are platforms like Samsung’s SHP, Nokia’s Series 40, Motorola’s P2K and Sony Ericsson’s OSe. The Taiwanese manufacturer MediaTek shipped 270million phones with its native OS last year. Five operating systems and I’ll bet most readers have only heard of the Nokia one. Low end phones in emerging markets have a much longer life than in the developed markets. They don’t sit in drawers but get sold on and used. Of the 4bn only a tiny fraction are open. Maybe only 5% of the installed base, but the majority sits below the radar in the minds of those who plan phones and Android which has sold less than 1% of MediaTek is treated as important. It’s a bit like thinking all cars are electric now because you can buy a Tesla and an Aptera.

The issue becomes worse when you consider my “If a smartphone isn’t used to do anything smart is it still a smartphone?”. Why do people buy N95s and never install an application. They might use the web – to look up a sports score or the weather – but most don’t even know it has GPS or WiFi, and never download more than a ringtone. Readers of this column who are phone-savvy will find such things hard to believe but try stopping a few people in the street and they might be aware of one or two features, they might even use one of them, but for the most part the phones are smarter than the users need. This has been vindicated by INQ which has seen dramatically better data usage from tailored feature phones than from smart phones.

We’ve been saying for years, many years, that the feature phone is dead. But why? What is the purpose of killing the devices people actually want to buy. Smartphones are harder to use. They have to be because they do more things. Even with the iPhone there is a learning curve. Give one to someone who has never seen one before and ask them to make a call. Now do that with a Nokia 6110. The reason why you might choose a cheap phone over an expensive one is that it’s smaller, lighter, has better battery life and is easier to use. In short it’s a better phone. If, as INQ has taught us, it does one thing that people want: say an eBay phone (I know a vicar who gave up eBay for Lent), or a Twitter phone (follow me).

What we are giving people is a Swiss Army Knife where they only want to use the main blade and then wondering why they think it is complicated, awkward to use and doesn’t do as good a job as a Sabatier. And as INQ have found the best way to teach them isn’t to introduce lots of features to let them choose but to find something they want to do, and do it well. It doesn’t matter if the phone isn’t “smart” so long as the user thinks it makes them think they are.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here. Follow me on Twitter here. 

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