It’s not about smartphones

For a long time we (meaning manufacturers, analysts and marketing entities) have divided mobile phone devices up into two categories, so called feature phones and smartphones. There’s also been an implicit “budget” category consisting of feature phones with, less, features.

Since some time back, I’d claim this has changed. There are now devices on the market that are used in a different way, signifying a disruptive shift in what’s usually known as the mobile phone industry. The common denominator between the categories I just brought up is the word phone, while these new devices are seen as something else.

Enter well known usability expert Jakob Nielsen, whose research into mobile web experience divides the device market up into three categories instead; feature phones, smartphones and touch phones.

While touch phones as a name indeed describes most of these devices on the market today, most existing touch devices haven’t got the usability Nielsen is referring to and it’s also likely that other forms of navigation than strictly touch is possible. Thus, there ought to be a better name for them. I like MID, short for Mobile Internet Device, since I believe these new devices to have shifted the primary use case from being phones to being windows to the Internet.

The addition of a new category, where the dividing line is both the usability [of the web] as well as a new primary purpose [Internet, not phone calls] causes some change looking at the existing industry. These devices are still viewed from an analyst perspective as being smartphones, and thus we see interesting headlines on who sells the most smartphones on the market vs who makes the most money on these devices, without realising that it’s an apples vs oranges thing [slight pun intended].

I was one of the original designers of the Sony Ericsson P800, a device that with the tech available then (2002) could be seen as being one of the first to [try to] create this new experience, but they would still not be in the same category. Something else has changed.

Working at a mobile manufacturer, especially with research, means you sometimes find yourself using a device that might be a bit, ehrm, unstable. That recently happened to me, and I found myself in the pretty interesting situation of carrying a device that restarted itself in the middle of phone calls. All of them.

Still, I kept using the device – something I wouldn’t have done a few years ago. It turns out my primary purpose of carrying a small digital device with me is not about making phone calls any more, it’s about being connected to the Internet at large – in a way that is both easy to use and optimized for an Internet/web experience.

This also indicates another problem with naming them just touch phones, or touch devices. To be able to be a true window to the Internet means that I should be able to perform all the activities I’m used to, while mobile. Adding touch to what is otherwise a feature phone, or just using a smartphone, doesn’t give me the same experience since the device limits what I’m able to do, in one way or another (lack of third party applications, or restricted third party applications). Openness, is the last dividing factor.

These devices have an active aftermarket experience. I can count on – even expect – the Internet services I’m using to be reachable with excellent usability either through the web or through low-cost (even free) applications, produced by anyone with a minimum of creation and publishing effort.

Thus, a new category of devices has been born. They’re not smartphones, they’re something else. And we love them.

For more on how open source and openness will enable a shift in speed of innovation in the mobile arena, please come and listen to my presentation on the Future of Open Source in Mobile, at OSiM Amsterdam 15-16 of September

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  1. By Andy Braun



    A great statement that I have heard is…”The desktop is where we will create the internet (content) and the mobile is how we will consume it. “

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