Why 'smartphone' is a dumb label

Three reasons why everyone should stop using the S word

3. 'Smartphone' was never a good label

Out of all the categories the industry has come up with to define and differentiate phones with advanced features -- "communicator phone," "PDA phone," "converged device," "Internet phone" -- "Smartphone" is by far the least meaningful.

All the other descriptors we use to describe phones -- "camera phone," "music phone," "slider phone" -- actually mean something everyone understands. But "smart" tells you nothing. Sure, you need a Ph.D to learn how to use some of these phones, but that doesn't make the phone smart.

If you want to divide the phone universe the way ABI does, then a better descriptor would be "open platform phone." If Gartner's differentiator is the one you like, then "PDA phone" means something. Palm's definition would work better as "Internet phone."

But "smart"? What does that mean? Well, according to my online dictionary, the primary meaning is: "Characterized by sharp quick thought." But "regular" phones are and always have been sharper and quicker than "smartphones." (I like the secondary meaning better: "To cause a sharp, usually superficial, stinging pain.")

"Smartphone" has always been just a vague, meaningless proxy for an unspecified range of features that nobody agrees on and that are no longer exclusive to the category.

In closing, more on open platforms

ABI deserves credit for its valiant effort to bring meaning to an increasingly meaningless term. The distinction between "open" platform phones and the rest is a real one. ABI isn't making it up. (The operating systems ABI is referring to are the Symbian OS, Linux, Windows Mobile, RIM BlackBerry or the Garnet OS, formerly known as the Palm OS.)

The distinction is real, but arcane, irrelevant and confusing. It's a distinction not worth making for most of us. Nowadays, the distinction matters only to software developers.

I think analysts lean too heavily on this distinction and need to come up with a new way to talk about the mobile phone market. Ideally, they should try to agree on a feature grid that includes all the major technologies -- multimedia, GPS, Internet access, keyboard types, pointing devices, cameras and so on.

Whether devices support "open" software development or "sandbox" platforms (BREW and Java) -- or are closed altogether -- should be one pillar of categorization. But it shouldn't be the main one, and it shouldn't use the term "smartphone."

The truth is that the lay public doesn't know what "smartphone" means, the experts disagree and vendors can't use it.

Let's face it: The word "smartphone" is just plain dumb.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

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