Whatever happened to... the smartphone?
We try and find out
Excuse No.3: Why pay more for a slower performance, and worse battery life
Lacking a killer application, smartphones have succeeded more because they're a status symbol, than for practical reasons. Even for the most reliable smartphones, there are serious disadvantages - such as a time taken to open a text message, and having only a half to a quarter of the battery life of a dumbphone. That's for the good ones. In markets where Palm and Microsoft models are popular, they don't even have the reputation for reliability.
The US market has paid dearly. European operators subsidize models heavily, so with a new contract people are offered a top of the range smartphone for next to no cost. In the US, the price is $350 to $700, with most offered at around $500.
Excuse No.4: And then came the iPod
The popular media had been talking about 'convergence' for so long, it took Apple to remind everyone that converged devices frequently combined the worst of all possible worlds. To the consumer, the iPod did one thing very well - media playback. The iPod has grown more ambitious since its launch, but its place in your life remains the same: media is acquired on a PC, transferred painlessly, and then becomes portable.
Can they do the same with all the parts of the puzzle that make acquiring and playing music as seamless?
The suitability of dedicated devices wasn't a secret to business users in the United States, who were accustomed to carrying two devices - a phone and a pager - around with them. Then, just as SMS looked set to kill the pager, along came RIM, to give enterprise users an iPod lesson. The Blackberry does one thing very, very well - and still sets the benchmark for usability. This had the effect of putting the phone manufacturers pretensions into an unforgiving light, and they've responded by bundling service from Blackberry, or one of its clones, into their business range.
And against all expectations, the PDA is still with us. The trend is unmistakable, but despite nine successive quarters in which sales have slumped, between five and six million handhelds will be sold this year. Again, it's not hard to see why. For example, Palm's ancient OS, dubbed "Frankengarnet", still provides superior to-do management (with priorities and categories) than most smartphones - and it gives the user a desktop PIM suite right out of the box, rather than obliging them to sync with Outlook or Notes.
The advantages of convergence remain exactly as they were: one need only carry one device, and one charger. But it remains to be seen how well the phone manufacturers can rise to the challenge.
Excuse No.5: Microsoft reset everyone's expectations to zero
While Microsoft's numbers rarely meet its boasts, there's some evidence Redmond may have succeeded in tilting the expectations in its favour. The European market is currently awash with PDA-style devices, many of which are operator branded, running Windows Mobile.
It's amazingly rare to see anyone using one as their sole device. But then subsidies are generous, and Microsoft offers very generous licensing terms for new models - which explains why they enter and leave the market so quickly. So operators are happy to dangle them as a bait to lure people into experimenting with data services. I've met a few users who have one, and they tend to be professionals, but not technology geeks. Because these Windows PDAs are regarded as a bit of extra bling, and a bonus, this tends to temper criticism. So long as Microsoft can afford to keep flinging these anonymous gadgets at the market, people will become more accustomed to their data being in one device, and phone calls being in another. All of which suggests a long and healthy future for the dumbphone.
What's missing from this list? Are these criticisms too harsh?
In the coming days we'll review two of the most ambitious smartphones to see how well they fare - from Sony Ericsson and Nokia.
What has been surprising to this reporter this summer, has been getting acquainted (or reacquainted) with some of the most senior smartphone designers of the past decade, and discovering they too have returned to the dumbphone. Maybe one had found the secret when he told me:
"Old technology works best." ®
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