Saturday, November 26, 2005


My friends who have seen my phone often call it a brick and ask "what's so special about it?". I tell them it's a smartphone and that it has a 1.3 Megapixel camera. They ask me, where is the stylus or keyboard? More often than not they will be interested in the pansy camera. So what really makes a smartphone so 'smart'?

Smart or not
Putting smart with phone
I have also wondered what makes one phone smart while another is not. A little research yielded an article What Is a Smartphone by Michael Juntao Yuan. He begins by referring to the Oxford American Dictionary that defines smartphone as "a mobile phone that incorporates a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)". You're probably thinking, "my phone has a calendar, alarm, and phone book, so why isn't that PDA functionality?", don't worry, so am I. Yuan continues on to explain how PDAs evolved from mini computers and merging a phone to a PDA or vice versa as a natural evolution. That makes sense. As manufacturers try to differentiate their high-end and high margin products from others, they add more power and more functionality.

Phone API
So we know why smartphones exist but we still don't know what makes the difference between a symbian phone like the Nokia 6620 from a multi-function phone like the Sony Ericsson S710a. It isn't about having "an operating system and local storage, so users can add and store information, send and receive email, and install programs to the phone as they could with a PDA" as Yuan would like you to believe, it's all about programs you install being able to access the phone's operating system (OS) application program interface (API).

More Interactive
Does your phone's caller id picture too small and appear in a little corner of the screen? Imagine you could change that. With access to the phone's API, you can change that by installing a caller ID application or you can write your own! You can install your own e-mail application, calendar application, and alarm application if you don't like the built-in ones. You can also add new functionality such as open PDF documents with Adobe Acrobat, Nintendo emulation with vNES, unzipping utility with ZipMan, and watch DiVX movies with SmartMovie.

SNES emulator playing Super Mario World on a Symbian S60 device
Can't go back
A traditional phone like the S710a only allows users to install Java programs. Java programs are restricted, or sandboxed, in a location of the phone's memory so they cannot access the phone's OS directly. It feels almost like having a computer but not being able to install any applications after you get it.

Smartphones provide almost the same level of functionality as a PDA like the Palm Pilot while keeping it in the footprint of a phone. If you like to personalize your phone or need to do more with your phone than play Java games then perhaps a smartphone would be a good choice for your next phone.

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