Smartphones – geek toy or useful tool?

Over the last few months I’ve been spending some of my time looking into Web 2.0 and the mobile internet. On the back of that I’ve found myself being pulled into examining some of the social networking services on the web, which has naturally led me to the whole Twitter phenomenon. And I have to admit that having now spent some time using it, I just don’t “get” it. Or at any rate, not for it’s purported purposes *

There seem to be two main classes of “normal” (ie, non-celebrity) user for Twitter out there; the people who are using it as a very restrictive instant messaging system (and this class of user seems to lock their updates and strictly manage their followers), and the people who seem to be “collecting” as many followers as possible, and broadcasting their every thought to them in the hope of becoming some sort of celebrity themselves.

And this brings me to how these people do that broadcasting, and the real point of this post; the more prolific “tweeters” appear to feel the need to broadcast their every thought, no matter where they are or what they are doing; and the only convenient way that they can do that is by using internet-enabled smartphones.

And I find that very interesting because IBM gives me a smartphone; a Blackberry Pearl. And it’s dreadful. It’s not powerful enough to do anything useful with the internet, the screen is too small, the keyboard is unusable, and the battery-life almost non-existent. And yet, because it’s supposedly been designed with the internet in mind, it’s also a very poor mobile phone, with absolutely terrible usability. In short, it’s the worst of all worlds. It’s so shockingly bad that I’m thinking of actually spending my own money to replace it with a really good “ordinary” phone.

This then got me wondering; who are smartphones actually targeted at? I see lots of people with Apple iPhones, but with a single exception (my oncologist) they are all owned by people who I would class as “geeks” who work in the IT industry. Is that because that’s just the people I happen to see with them, or are they much more widely accepted? And if they are more widely accepted, are those people actually using them for productive work, or (like a lot of Apple products) are they just being bought because they happen to be stylish, and therefore desirable to be seen with?

One thing’s for sure; from my initial perusal of the current cellphone market it’s looking like all the major manufacturers are concentrating a huge amount of effort on creating ever more complex smartphones. I suspect that it might be extremely difficult for me to find a high-end mobile phone at a sensible price that isn’t a smartphone. Which leaves me wondering if the solution to my quest may be to buy an older (second-hand?) high end mobile phone from the times before smartphones became the “in thing”.

I’m actually quite tempted to see if I can track down an old Nokia 8810, simply because I had one about 10 years ago when they were the pinnacle of mobile phone design, and loved it. All it can do is make phone calls and send SMS messages, but it did both of those things exceptionally well. Using an 8810 these days would certainly be making a statement, if nothing else! Given that thought, any comments or suggestions for ordinary “non-smartphones” that you’d particularly recommend, along with your reasons why, would be welcomed!

* – the thing that I do see Twitter being very useful for, is to act as a cheap and simple notification fabric for applications that want to notify people of events via SMS. For that purpose, it’s great, though probably not what Twitters creators were expecting it to be used for.

6 thoughts on “Smartphones – geek toy or useful tool?

  1. Hi Rich,

    Nice posting. To answer your question about iPhone ownership outside IT industry, a lot of my friends have them at the rugby club (non-IT), and my 16 year old brother and his friends all covet, or have an iPhone also many of my University friends have gone for one too.

    Apple have made the first accessible smartphone, that is not complex to use, functions well as a phone and makes browsing the internet, tweeting and installing news applications very simple indeed. The only issue is price, as they are a lot more expensive then other smartphone offerings. Maybe this will be addressed by the introduction of Orange and Vodaphone as iPhone resellers?



    • Ah, that’s interesting to know. I’ve seen very few outside of my “IT sphere” of friends, hence my curiosity over who actually uses them in practice, and what for. I also fear that I’m becoming a bit of a luddite in this area; I’m old enough to remember a time before mobile phones even existed, and find myself more and more enjoying the times when I am NOT connected to the internet. That may be an age thing, or maybe it’s a result of my recent health experiences? Hard for me to quantify, but it colours my views on these things somewhat.

      Your comments about the coveting of the iPhone by your brother and his friends is interesting too, as it could well indicate a successful styling/exclusivity/branding exercise by Apple, rather than any technical need for such a device on their part. It would be very interesting to see what actual uses people put these devices to, and what value that adds to their life/productivity. I wonder if there have been any research projects in these areas?

      Anyway, it will certainly be interesting to see how the market for smartphones develops, with the iPhone becoming (potentially) more prevalent and less exclusive, along with the introduction of things like the Palm Pre and various incarnations of Android phone providing increased competition. I suspect however, that unless someone suddenly finds a “killer app” for these devices that there will be a plateauing & levelling of function fairly soon.

      Commoditisation will set in, and at that point it will be interesting to see what drives adoption, especially for people like me, who are starting to hanker after the “good old days” with less connectivity, not more.

      Incidentally, I’ve found a vendor for reconditioned Nokia 8810 phones. I’m currently having a heart vs head battle with myself over the sense of buying a 10 year old phone for everyday use!

  2. Hi, RIchard. The iPhone really does seem to be built with the internet in mind. Having a usable pocket web browser and universal access to email is a very powerful combination, and running the cipher challenge became much easier with it. All the best, Graham

    • That’s a very valid point. If you have a role where you are predominantly mobile, then the productivity benefits from having everything in a single pocketable device may well outweigh any disadvantages such as higher costs, poorer usability compromises etc. Thinking about it, that’s exactly the decision I took when I moved from my “full-fat” laptop down to a netbook running Linux at the beginning of this year.

      So, an interesting question for me is whether I was radical enough back then? Could I have moved to “just” a smartphone as my only productivity tool? I think the answer is no, given my profile of work and the requirements it places on me and my productivity tools.

      But I do wonder how many people actually could make such a transition, and how many more could make it on at least a “part time” basis? And then what kinds of “back end” computing infrastructure would people really need to support that kind of working?

  3. What I have found interesting is the way I have been able to move to a variety of devices for different occasions, having for years used only a single device – a large laptop – in order to centralise and streamline my work. The big change here is usable synchronisation. Exchange and mobile me do an excellent job of keeping contact/email/diary info up to date and dropbox makes document synching completely transparent. I now have moved back to a heavy duty desktop for design work, a very light laptop for travel and the iphone is always with me. I would have hated this setup three years ago because of the problems of multiple versions of files etc. As for using the phone as the only or principal device, I did manage a ten day trip to Hawaii taking only the phone and that worked very well, since I did not need to produce any documents while there. G

    • I guess this is the ideal scenario in many ways. You’d like to be able to pick the device that meets your specific needs at the time, but still have a consistent view of the data that you need, when and where you need it.

      There are some interesting questions around whether you’d want to do this by keeping copies of the data on each device, or storing it in the network (in a cloud?) somewhere and merely accessing it through the devices, or even some smart combination of the two. I can see pros and cons for each approach, depending on your needs, device capabilities and infrastructure.

      In terms of synchronisation it feels like Apple and Microsoft have products that are actually ready to work in the real world, while Linux seems to be struggling with some good frameworks (OpenSync etc) that have yet to mature into products that are user-friendly enough for everyday use. Unless of course you happen to be using a restricted set of well-supported applications and devices.

      I personally feel that the centralised cloud approach is a way off yet, though Google appear to be showing one way forward. Unfortunately connectivity is still far from universal, and there are interesting issues around trust, privacy and governance that still look like they need some attention before this approach can really become ubiquitous.

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