Sunday, January 22, 2012

The dumbest of phones is still a hell of a computer

The other day I saw one of those all-too common charts drawing conclusions about growth rates of various currently-cool devices. Actually, no need to be vague, this one: And I start saying, mostly on Twitter, "where are the dumbphones," but even just wondered, where is Blackberry OS, or Psion/S60, or Windows CE/PocketPC/etc. Or even the PSP and other portable game devices? I want more info on every computing device. This leads, eventually, to this response:
@lukew Luke Wroblewski
@shoobe01 at some point phones crossed the line and became computers. I think a draw the line later in time than you~
And the more I think about it, the more I don't get why. But I always try to make sense of my gut reaction. In pondering this, two threads of have emerged that keep nagging at me.


I've used a lot of crazy stuff in my day. Some because I am old enough that PCs when I was in college were rare, so I had to take screwdrivers (and sometimes, a soldering iron) to them to get them to work. But also because I was lucky enough to be around other devices. I got to use the Aspen Movie Map in grade school, for example, which is why I keep wondering where the hell my jetpack is, and find few things to be world-changingly cool; I already saw that stuff when I was ten years old. Now get around to launching it, please. My dad was also what you'd today call an Information Worker. He was employed as a writer for various organizations, including newspapers, universities, the KC police department, and the Federal Reserve Bank. He was issued computers as they came into being, in the early 1980s. I actually used – for school papers and so on – things like the TRS-80 Model 100, a very early (but surprisingly small and useful) laptop. It was presumably amazing, but as I said, I somehow expected all this stuff by then. It was a portable computer ten years before I was weird to have a [giant, desktop] computer in college at all. It had a built-in modem (though pre-Bell-breakup, it came with a snazzy acoustic coupler, not a phone jack) and so on. I still recall how wonky the audio-tape save/load of data was, and of course when it wasn't a CLI, it was 100% scroll-and-select, character display only, and of course monochrome. In every measurable way, a low-end, free-with-contract, contemporary featurephone is miles more capable a computer than any TRS-80. Go ahead, complain about the limited capabilities of the device, or how hard it is to load J2ME applications. There are many thousands of them, many are free, and they don't come on an audio cassette. And for the record, the Model 100 could have up to 32 kb of RAM. The first phone I picked up from my pile, is the not-even-current Samsung SPH-M320. It has... well, they are pretty obtuse about handset specs, but it has 40 MB of "memory." Some use that for both storage and RAM. Some just keep the RAM obscure. Anyway, it certainly beats the TRS-80 for storage, because it had none. Unlike many other computers that followed, the Model 100 came with that modem, so was aware it should be connected to others. When you add in the vastly higher-speed modern mobile network, the cloud-based functions of modern mobile handsets, location services and other telemetry and carrier-based info, the comparison continues to be off the charts in favor of the stupid little phone.

Okay, let's just stick to smartphones

I could certainly keep going with this. There are an awful lot of messaging-oriented featurephones that have QWERTY keypads, and a lot with touchscreens. But what about another key issue with this and many charts which pick and choose their data: Smartphones have been around for a long, long time. But even if you focus on those, where are they? No matter how world changing you think iOS is, can you really say they invented the smartphone? I don't think so. What about Blackberry, or better yet the Psion > Symbian behemoth, which was still the largest selling smartphone OS in 2011. The first real smartphone was the Nokia 9210 Communicator, released in June 2001. And before you write this off as some nerdy little niche device, they sold 2.1 million of these in 2002, before anyone knew what a smartphone even was. That would be a little line starting just below the Mac line, and ramping up massively, immediately, and staying up above all the others.


For a long, long time I've been aware that users often don't even accurately perceive the difference between a featurephone and smartphone. Which is... what? In the industry, we tend to define it as "Named OS" and "Ability to load arbitrary native applications." So? What magic does that offer up? Maybe some actual use rates can help us out here. ComScore (though I borrowed these figures from a recent post by Tomi Ahonen) tells us that actual people use (aside from voice):
  1. SMS text messaging – 83% Europe/68% US
  2. Camera – 58% Europe/53% US
  3. Web browsing – 33% Europe/39% US
  4. Apps – 28% Europe/34% US
Before you quote back any of your own numbers at me: Are you sure? If you say, for example, that 95% of anything is on one platform, I can confidently say you screwed up. This is far too fragmented a market, and when I dig into metrics I find that most folks have used some identifier that under-represents featurephones. Or, it recognizes them, but it takes a bit of messing with the results to realize it, and the Smartphone-or-Desktop mentality means all Other data is recorded on the graphs as "unknown desktop." I've had problems finding aggregate data, but GetJar (which only has J2ME apps) has handled 2.3 BILLION downloads. So, don't say Apps at #4 above absolutely means Smartphone, either. Okay, but people love smartphones. Well, more so in the industrialized west, but since you may only care what people in NYC and the Bay Area want, let's go with that. A TNS survey of North America, Europe and advanced Asian countries found that customers seeking smartphones based their decisions on:
  1. Look & Feel
  2. Brand of handset
  3. Input method*
  4. Model
  5. Operating system
I don't care if you and your friends try to decide first between iOS and Android, your users don't. They might by anything. They often do own any number of things. This whole thing of iOS/Android being tops is what, two years old? Smartphones as a whole go back less than ten years. we have no idea what will be happening in five years. Closing your eyes to the future, and to history is not helping.

This is not all academic

And that misrepresentation of data is a huge problem. If you've stuck with me this far, you are pretty likely to wonder why it matters. And it's by no means a navel-gazing, internal argument. If you assume that everyone important uses iOS, and grudgingly agree to later appeal to Android users, you are missing a HUGE percentage of the possible users. And if you justify this with bad metrics, because you think only smartphones matter, you don't even know you're missing out. Expand your horizons, seek out real information and don't ignore data that messes with your world view.

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