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What Makes a Phone 'Smart' ?

With 'smartphones' rapidly gaining popularity these days, it's getting increasingly hard to clear define lines between different kinds of phones. Here's your simplified guide to understanding what makes a phone 'smart' and its underlying grey area.

Smartphone: The definition of a smartphone is evolving. Early models were sold as phones with built-in PDA and modem functionality. But industry analysts say it's the smartphone's operating system allowing users to run third-party applications, which sets it apart. This includes all of the phones running Android, Bada, BlackBerry OS, iOS, MeeGo and Symbian (S60 and now "3), Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 operating systems.

These third-party applications or apps allow users to tailor their mobile experience to their liking. These apps are often integral to the smartphone experience, and most smartphone users end up getting at least a handful of third-party apps to make the device more useful. Email, calendar syncing, document editing, social networking et al. are essential as well. Features such as GPS, a large touchscreen and 3G/4G antennas are common in smartphones.

Feature phone: Feature phones, on the other hand, are a midway point between smartphones and basic phones. They usually have a limited proprietary operating system, and not all feature phones support third-party software. If they do, they're usually run on Java or BREW and are often standalone items that don't integrate with other features of the phone. Access to features such as email are via the mobile browser and Push mail is often nonexistent. Calendar syncing is often a problem, as is document editing. A lot of feature phones also have social networking abilities now in the form of Twitter and Facebook integration.

On the surface

Smartphones are seen as complex devices, with features that many consumers don't need or want. Feature phones are typically easier to use, cheaper and cater to specific needs. But all this is rapidly changing - feature phones now sport characteristics that had put 'smartphones' of the past in the limelight. In fact, smartphones these days resemble pocket computers that are probably more powerful than some old PCs that you may have lying at home. These days, the price differences aren't as significant as it used to be in the past. The most common reason for not upgrading to a smartphone is its perceived complexity. In reality, the learning curve is not as steep as commonly believed. Features such as touchscreens are increasingly in demand than the underlying OS itself. Since the iPhone was released, every major phone manufacturer is offering a touchscreen model, many of which are not smartphones.


While feature-focused phones are developed with a specific capability, smartphones include a broader range of features without heavily focusing on specific purposes such as music, email or social networking.

Smartphone users are rewarded with a wide range of applications that can be added or deleted to create a customized user experience. Nevertheless, it will still take some time to become the norm, especially here in India, hence allowing for this complicated nomenclature to confuse us a while longer. The convergence has begun though, with advanced feature phones' becoming synonymous with the basic smartphone, and with the prices becoming more and more competitive, it's hard to tell them apart... even for us!


Herein lies the catch. Apart from the fact that smartphones cost an arm and a leg, the smartphones' biggest boon is also its Achilles heel. With apps come data usage, and with data usage comes added cost on your monthly mobile bill. Of course, you may opt out of data and choose to simply go with Wi-Fi, but then the whole point of buying a feature-packed phone is then lost, since you will not have your 'smart' apps working for you on-the-go.

It's subjective!

Think about it, Nokia's N series was the smartphone of the day, seven years ago. Then came in Apple's iPhone five years ago and today, we have phones such as Motorola Milestone. As time progresses, the definition of what we call a smartphone is bound to evolve and with these shifts in the smartphone market, the terminology used to classify these phones is becoming insufficient, and in our opinion, also inaccurate. For instance, there is a debate about whether the iPhone is a smartphone or glorified iPod with a built-in phone.

A similar shift is taking place in the feature phone category as the traditionally low-end phones are being beefed up to appeal to consumers who want more. In a competitive market where both feature phones and smartphones are competing for market dominance, what is it that sets the smart ones from the not-so-smart? If you were to ask us, we'd say it's subjective.

Gartner too categorizes phones as basic phones, enhanced phones, entry-level smartphones and feature smartphones. As smartphones evolve into specialized subsets such as navigation/GPS (Garmin-Asus) or entertainment, consumers will not be asking 'Is it a smartphone?,' but rather 'Is it smart in the way that I want it to be smart?'.

Technology will continue to progress, and the burden is now on consumers to pick and choose features that will make their phone a smartphone. We just can't wait for the day when technology advances to the point where we wear our phones like a custom built in-ear piece and the display sitting pretty right in front of our eyes like cyborgs!