Whatever happened to... the smartphone?

We try and find out

Analysis At one time, the future of mobiles looked simple. The smartphone was a new kind of gadget that was subsuming the pager, the camera, the PDA, the Walkman, and almost every other iece of technology you could carry - and offering it in volume at an irresistible price. Often free. Over time, every phone would become a smartphone.

Expectations were sky high.

A few years ago an American business consultant and author published a very silly book called 'Smart Mobs' - which even predicted that phone-toting nerds would be at the vanguard of social upheaval.

But something funny happened on the way to this digital nirvana. Perhaps the signs were there from the start: 'Smart Mobs' couldn't find a UK publisher. A website of the same name continues, however, apparently staffed by volunteers, and making its ghostly way across the web like a latter day Marie Celeste. Alas the site still has a category called "How To Recognize The Future When It Lands On You.

And earlier this year the best known smartphone blogger hung up his pen.

So what went wrong? You can argue that the smartphone category hasn't really failed to find a market - it's just taken much longer than anyone expected. But that's a generous argument. In early 2000, Symbian's CEO Colly Myers suggested that by 2003, 15 per cent of the handset business would be smartphones. It's taken three years to reach a cumulative total of 100 million Symbian smartphones.

Few of us would mind having our handiwork in 100 million devices, of course. But what's changed subtly, but surely, is the perception that you have to have a piece of smartphone if you want to be part of the future.

The justification for an all-singing, all-dancing converged device seems as distant as ever. Today 'dumbphones', say for example Nokia's 6230i, or Sony Ericsson's V630i are more capable than we once imagined they would be.

It's easy to explain the success of the dumbphone by arguing they add most of the features people wanted. Of course that's true, but it's also tautological, and we have to look beyond that, to see what features people either didn't want, or haven't used. The phone manufacturers would much rather the smartphone had become an overnight smash, because they command higher margins, and carriers make more money from services smartphones can handle than the dumbphones. Something, clearly, didn't go according to plan.

But what was it?

Excuse No.1: The networks were late

This is the most popular excuse with the smartphone vendors themselves - they're still in denial about several of the others.

Everyone remembers the WAP fiasco. In the summer of 2000, new mobile phones delivered the "mobile internet". Which meant blocky, monochrome text on a 128x128 screen, arriving in twenty words splats, with thirty seconds delay between each splat, costing you 10 pence per splat. Very quickly everyone agreed that this was terrible, but suggested that "the mobile internet" would be rescued by 144kbit/s GPRS.

That's 144kbit/s is theoretical of course, and while GPRS made downloading ringtones easier, the web still sucked. We must wait for 3G, at 2mbit/s.

3G's 2mbit/s is also theoretical, and while ringtones bounded along, we were told to wait for HSDPA, the go-faster 3G. Each of these network enhancements has arrived in a usable form two or three years than predicted. And you still don't need a smartphone to download a ringtone.

Excuse No.2: Mobile Data sucks at any speed

But it isn't just about bandwidth, it's about quality. The quality of the experience, and the quality of the data.

Let's take the second first. While millions of people are happy to reference, say, Wikipedia for their trivia needs, one can often easily shrug off duff data with the excuse, "... everyone knows you can't believe what you read on the internet!" By contrast, mobile information has to be much more accurate. A Wikipedia-style mistake means taking the wrong turning, going to the wrong shop, or being punched in the face by an angry Catalan. All have an immediate, material impact on your day.

Then there's the user experience, which is typically slow, with huge latencies, simply to get to a catalog listing or a web page. I shudder when I hear the phrase "web on your phone" - because as well as "all the world's newspapers in your hand" the phrase also means "largely useless Google results".

In five years of using mobile data, it's failed the 'Real Life' test every time. I've never found a situation where mobile browsing could get the information I wanted faster than by asking someone - usually a stranger - nearby. So much for 'Smart Mobs'. Someone relying on mobile data through their phone is, for the forseeable future, going to be considerably 'dumber' than the people around them.

No wonder text-based services such as AQA and Google Answers have the most promise - they employ humans, and use SMS. And you don't need a smartphone to receive a text message.

(And don't even think about replicating PC-based web services on a phone without reading your reporter's encounter with Yahoo! Go!)

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