Defining the Smartphone

Wayne Rash

The call from the producer at National Public Radio took longer than I'd expected, but it was certainly time well spent. Like talk shows everywhere, the producers of the show I'll be on this coming Tuesday-Kojo Nnamdi's Tech Tuesday - wanted to get an idea of what I'll be talking about. Shows everywhere do this because they want to be sure you have something interesting to say. 

In this case, the producer called to talk to me about smartphones, since that's the topic of Tuesday's show. The reason it took longer than these calls usually do is because our conversation took an unexpected turn due to a question she asked. The question and the ones that followed revolved around figuring out why there were so many different types of smartphones, and from that, what the differences were. She also wondered what a potential smartphone customer should be looking for when they go out shopping for a smartphone.

The answer to the first question is that while just about every smartphone shares some basic functions-they all can make phone calls and handle e-mail-there are vast differences in what else they do. But what's at least as important is that there are huge differences in how they go about doing it. In this case, the producer told me she was lusting after an iPhone, but still had a ways to go before the contract ran out on her Blackberry. 

So we talked about the iPhone and the fact that it's tied to AT&T in the US. We talked about the issues with voice quality and the reported problems with dropped calls. Then she wanted to know why it was important whether a phone supported 3G, and by the way, she wondered, what exactly IS 3G anyway?

I explained what the carriers would rather I not mention, and said that 3G is really not very important for routine uses of any phone, smart or otherwise. Voice calls don't use it. E-mail rarely needs it. I explained that the only things she'd do with 3G that might be useful were music and video downloads, and maybe sending photos to people. Then I asked her just how often she planned to download music or share photos or videos from her phone. And, of course, that's the question that everyone should ask before they spring for any smartphone for personal or business use.

I also explained that it was probably a mistake to simply go shopping for a smartphone. What really matters is what functions of a given device really matter most to you, what functions matter less, and what doesn't matter at all. This means that if you need to be able to tie into your corporate e-mail, then you need to get a device that will do that. Not every smartphone will.

So what functions matter to you? Do you want your smartphone to make a statement about your coolness? Or do you prefer being able to have a secure connection to your company's inventory database? Do you plan to take a lot of photos and videos, or will you be using the GPS capabilities? Do you need a device that includes a speaker phone? Built-in social networking software? A great video player? Or maybe you want to be able to read Word and Excel files.

In reality, we ended our conversation with two questions being addressed. First, a smartphone is just about anything you say it is, as long as it'll make phone calls and perform some additional functions such as e-mail and maybe Web browsing. Second, choosing the right one is complicated, so it's better to start with research, at least until you get a short list of two or three devices. Then do your shopping online to find out what these devices actually should cost. It's kind of like buying a computer, but more complicated.

For those of you who want to listen to the show when it happens, go to http://www.wamu.org at noon EST on Tuesday, Dec. 15, and use the audio streaming. You might be able to catch it on the radio where you live, but there's no guarantee that it'll run live everywhere at the same time. The second option is to download the podcast at and search for the show's name or 'Tech Tuesday." If you listen to it live, you can call in and ask questions. Just make sure they're good questions.
 



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