Why the “smartphone” never existed

When you think of the word “smart,” what comes to mind? Intelligent, clever, and witty are all synonyms which which ring loud. These are all traits which I would assign to something which is animate. So why is it that we have come to define the hardware, which we can no longer leave home without, as the “smartphone?” Today’s phones are nothing but simply the next generation of feature phones. Advanced? Yes. Paradigm shifting? Absolutely. Smart? I don’t think so. Today’s phones are nothing but a combination of great hardware engineering and clever programming.

A true “smartphone” will be a device that learns. It learns our habits and adapts. It will be a device that from the minute you first turn it on, it begins to develop it’s own personality. Perhaps when this day comes we will not call it a “smartphone.” When devices are personalized to our needs and wants they will become companion devices and consumers will expect this experience to extend out to all of the devices and services they themselves interact with. Phones, TVs, watches, banking, health, etc. The list goes on and on.

Software which helps me live in the present and allows me to stop and smell the roses is the endgame. Software and services that can predict my needs before I know I need them will unlock value and productivity in our economy. The less time I have to spend on planning my calendar, selecting the best playlist for my mood, setting alarms to wake up, calculating how much time it will take me to get from A to B is more time I can spend reading, writing, learning or dare I say it, working. I look forward to a future of companion devices and services.

The history of the term “smartphone”

I will keep this short and sweet. The term “smartphone” was first coined back in 1997 by Ericsson. The term was used to describe it’s GS 88 Penelope concept. Most pundits today will state that the smartphone didn’t come into existence until 2007 when Steve Jobs famously unveiled the iPhone.

Let’s keep in mind that when the iPhone was unveiled it didn’t receive the highest praise.

  • “Apple will sell a few to its fans, but the iPhone won’t make a long-term mark on the industry.” — Matthew Lynn, columnist at Bloomberg
  • “The iPhone is going to be nothing more than a temporary novelty that will eventually wear off.” –Gundeep Hora, CoolTechZone Editor-in-Chief, April 02, 2007
  • “[Apple’s iPhone] is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard which makes it not a very good email machine… So, I, I kinda look at that and I say, well, I like our strategy. I like it a lot.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, January 17, 2007
  • “Apple begins selling its revolutionary iPhone this summer and it will mark the end of the string of hits for the company.”
    Todd Sullivan, Seeking Alpha, 15 May 2007

So let’s be honest. The term “smartphone” was misappropriated over 19 years ago and the moniker has held. Apple created a great device which helped propel the industry forward but even their solution has not reached true “smartphone” status.

What is a “smartphone?”

We need to redefine this term. We need to raise the bar. We should not be satisfied with feature rich phones any longer. The market is now crowded and the devices are all converging from a hardware perspective. The game of who can build a device that squeezes the richest display, the fastest processor and the best camera into the smallest form factor is over. Consumers are bored by this and only the most hardcore fans care about the incremental improvements.

The only way to stand out in the crowd will be with software and services. Consumers are flocking to applications which provide them with rich and engaging experiences. Applications which allow them to tailor the experience to their liking.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence will give birth to the first “smartphone” or companion device. We will have the cloud to thank for the recent string of advancements in this field. A computing system recently developed by Google has just beaten a player at Go. (Wired) Nextbit’s Robin shows lots of promise as a device that leverages the cloud. I do not think it goes quite far enough in terms of leveraging the power of the cloud but I am excited to see how far they can push this. (re/code) Under Armour has recently announced a partnership with IBM to provide more accurate health insights. The partnership shows promise and I hope IBM and Under Armour continue to push this initiative. (Mashable)

We are about to witness the birth of companion devices which will truly help to bring our digital worlds to life. “Smartphones” will evolve into devices that learn about us and begin to adapt to suit our needs. Apple recently announced that the total number of active Apple devices has surpassed 1 billion. Today there are about 2.6 billion “smartphone” subscriptions globally. The latest annual Mobility Report from Ericsson projects that there will be 6.1 billion “smartphones” in circulation by 2020.

I look forward to the day where our smartphones are as unique as we are. A day where 6.1 billion “smartphones” begin to take on a new life. When this day comes, turning on a “smartphone” for the first time will be similar to the birth of a new child. From the minute it is turned on, it begins to learn from it’s surroundings, adapts to it’s environment and becomes a companion to it’s owner.

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