Way back when the humble mobile phone began to offer more than just a way of talking to someone, it was a real novelty to be able to connect to the information superhighway (ok, so perhaps it was more of a country lane then), and to use email on the move.
Of course, back then we didn’t even have broadband and WiFi to connect to, so your internet connection was available only via the [GPRS] mobile network. As a result, it was both painfully slow and intermittent.
During that period, the early 1990s, we had another set of devices called PDAs; Personal Digital Assistants. One of the earliest types was introduced by Apple and called the Newton. Typically, Apple was ahead of its time, but very few really understood the point of a PDA, so there was no mass-market appeal. The PDA came and went fairly quickly.
By far the best of the PDAs were produced by Palm. They offered many features that the lowly mobile phone couldn’t even dream of. They also had the first touch-screens where a stylus was used (we hadn’t progressed to fingers yet) to interact with the application running. Nothing so fancy as scrolling or pinching, but it was a big step in the right direction.
The problem was that nobody really wanted to carry a mobile phone, a PDA and a Filofax. Remember those huge ring-binder-type personal folders? Filofax aficionados didn’t yet trust the PDA for their diary and contacts, and in any case, were more concerned about looking uber cool carrying the latest, leather-bound, soft-padded, paper-based weighty tome. Something clearly had to change if these people, and everyone else, were going to be converted to using technology.
Manufacturers of all types of electrical, electronic and digital equipment love to explore ‘convergence’. It’s the science of bringing together two separate technology solutions into one, more streamlined device, thereby bringing cost savings in manufacturing with convenience and intelligent user experience to the consumer.
Convergence began to surreptitiously take over our lives as more and more separate devices were combined. Home phones and answerphones, microwave ovens and grills, TVs and DVD players (and later digital decoders like FreeView), Computers and screens (the iMac), clocks and radios, and of course, mobile phones and cameras.
One of the first examples of convergence with a mobile phone was combining it with a PDA. The Ericsson R380 was released in 2000 and was the first device marketed as a ‘smartphone’. The term ‘smartphone’ was not officially recognised until much later which shows that introducing a new piece of jargon doesn’t mean it will take hold.
Since then we have seen a meteoric rise in the number and range of devices available from an array of manufacturers. It’s interesting to see how the balance of power can change in an instant as big companies commit to developing one product, only to find the public’s adoption veers off in a different direction. VHS and Betamax anyone?
Nokia, for example, the world’s best known and most respected giant of mobile phone producers, were streets ahead of any other mobile phone producer for years, but they missed the boat completely with the smartphone. They have, to this day, never recovered that ground (who do you know who uses a Nokia mobile phone?). It’s difficult to comprehend how the company that put mobile phones on the map could find itself in serious difficulty, cutting 10,000 jobs in 2012 in a market that was massively and continually on the rise.
Apple, once again, changed everything when they launched the iPhone in 2007. The world gasped at the seemingly impossible feats it was able to perform. ‘Pinch to zoom’ and ‘swiping’ made audiences around the world shriek in disbelief, yet now, we can barely imagine doing anything else, as this commonplace technology has spread to every device imaginable including tablets, phablets, laptops and desktops.
So, the question remains; why is it still called a mobile phone, when making and receiving phone calls is not only the one thing the vast majority of people do the least with it, but it’s also only one of the many entertainment, utility and communication functions even the cheapest of devices are capable of performing.
We need a new name for the device that pretty well everyone in the western world has at least one of. The term ‘smartphone’ is only paying homage to the old days and falls massively short in describing what an incredible piece of technology it is.