At one time, the future of mobiles looked simple. The smartphone was a new kind of gadget that was subsuming the pager, the camera, the PDA, the Walkman, and almost every other iece of technology you could carry – and offering it in volume at an irresistible price. Often free. Over time, every phone would become a smartphone.
Expectations were sky high.
A few years ago an American business consultant and author published a very silly book called ‘Smart Mobs‘ – which even predicted that phone-toting nerds would be at the vanguard of social upheaval.
But something funny happened on the way to this digital nirvana. Perhaps the signs were there from the start: ‘Smart Mobs‘ couldn’t find a UK publisher. A website of the same name continues, however, apparently staffed by volunteers, and making its ghostly way across the web like a latter day Marie Celeste. Alas the site still has a category called “How To Recognize The Future When It Lands On You.”
And earlier this year the best known smartphone blogger hung up his pen.
So what went wrong?
You can argue that the smartphone category hasn’t really failed to find a market – it’s just taken much longer than anyone expected. But that’s a generous argument. In early 2000, Symbian’s CEO Colly Myers suggested that by 2003, 15 per cent of the handset business would be smartphones. It’s taken three years to reach a cumulative total of 100 million Symbian smartphones.
Few of us would mind having our handiwork in 100 million devices, of course. But what’s changed subtly, but surely, is the perception that you have to have a piece of smartphone if you want to be part of the future.
The justification for an all-singing, all-dancing converged device seems as distant as ever. Today ‘dumbphones’, say for example Nokia’s 6230i, or Sony Ericsson’s V630i are more capable than we once imagined they would be.
It’s easy to explain the success of the dumbphone by arguing they add most of the features people wanted. Of course that’s true, but it’s also tautological, and we have to look beyond that, to see what features people either didn’t want, or haven’t used. The phone manufacturers would much rather the smartphone had become an overnight smash, because they command higher margins, and carriers make more money from services smartphones can handle than the dumbphones. Something, clearly, didn’t go according to plan.
But what was it?
Excuse No.1: The networks were late
This is the most popular excuse with the smartphone vendors themselves – they’re still in denial about several of the others.
Everyone remembers the WAP fiasco. In the summer of 2000, new mobile phones delivered the “mobile internet”. Which meant blocky, monochrome text on a 128×128 screen, arriving in twenty words splats, with thirty seconds delay between each splat, costing you 10 pence per splat. Very quickly everyone agreed that this was terrible, but suggested that “the mobile internet” would be rescued by 144kbit/s GPRS.
That’s 144kbit/s is theoretical of course, and while GPRS made downloading ringtones easier, the web still sucked. We must wait for 3G, at 2mbit/s.
3G’s 2mbit/s is also theoretical, and while ringtones bounded along, we were told to wait for HSDPA, the go-faster 3G. Each of these network enhancements has arrived in a usable form two or three years than predicted. And you still don’t need a smartphone to download a ringtone.
Excuse No.2: Mobile Data sucks at any speed
But it isn’t just about bandwidth, it’s about quality. The quality of the experience, and the quality of the data.
Let’s take the second first. While millions of people are happy to reference, say, Wikipedia for their trivia needs, one can often easily shrug off duff data with the excuse, “… everyone knows you can’t believe what you read on the internet!” By contrast, mobile information has to be much more accurate. A Wikipedia-style mistake means taking the wrong turning, going to the wrong shop, or being punched in the face by an angry Catalan. All have an immediate, material impact on your day.
Then there’s the user experience, which is typically slow, with huge latencies, simply to get to a catalog listing or a web page. I shudder when I hear the phrase “web on your phone” – because as well as “all the world’s newspapers in your hand” the phrase also means “largely useless Google results”.
In five years of using mobile data, it’s failed the ‘Real Life’ test every time. I’ve never found a situation where mobile browsing could get the information I wanted faster than by asking someone – usually a stranger – nearby. So much for ‘Smart Mobs’. Someone relying on mobile data through their phone is, for the forseeable future, going to be considerably ‘dumber’ than the people around them.
No wonder text-based services such as AQA and Google Answers have the most promise – they employ humans, and use SMS. And you don’t need a smartphone to receive a text message.
Excuse No.3: Why pay more for a slower performance, and worse battery life
Lacking a killer application, smartphones have succeeded more because they’re a status symbol, than for practical reasons. Even for the most reliable smartphones, there are serious disadvantages – such as a time taken to open a text message, and having only a half to a quarter of the battery life of a dumbphone. That’s for the good ones. In markets where Palm and Microsoft models are popular, they don’t even have the reputation for reliability.
The US market has paid dearly. European operators subsidize models heavily, so with a new contract people are offered a top of the range smartphone for next to no cost. In the US, the price is $350 to $700, with most offered at around $500.
Excuse No.4: And then came the iPod
The popular media had been talking about ‘convergence’ for so long, it took Apple to remind everyone that converged devices frequently combined the worst of all possible worlds. To the consumer, the iPod did one thing very well – media playback. The iPod has grown more ambitious since its launch, but its place in your life remains the same: media is acquired on a PC, transferred painlessly, and then becomes portable.
Can they do the same with all the parts of the puzzle that make acquiring and playing music as seamless?
The suitability of dedicated devices wasn’t a secret to business users in the United States, who were accustomed to carrying two devices – a phone and a pager – around with them. Then, just as SMS looked set to kill the pager, along came RIM, to give enterprise users an iPod lesson. The Blackberry does one thing very, very well – and still sets the benchmark for usability. This had the effect of putting the phone manufacturers pretensions into an unforgiving light, and they’ve responded by bundling service from Blackberry, or one of its clones, into their business range.
And against all expectations, the PDA is still with us. The trend is unmistakable, but despite nine successive quarters in which sales have slumped, between five and six million handhelds will be sold this year. Again, it’s not hard to see why. For example, Palm’s ancient OS, dubbed “Frankengarnet”, still provides superior to-do management (with priorities and categories) than most smartphones – and it gives the user a desktop PIM suite right out of the box, rather than obliging them to sync with Outlook or Notes.
The advantages of convergence remain exactly as they were: one need only carry one device, and one charger. But it remains to be seen how well the phone manufacturers can rise to the challenge.
Excuse No.5: Microsoft reset everyone’s expectations to zero
While Microsoft’s numbers rarely meet its boasts, there’s some evidence Redmond may have succeeded in tilting the expectations in its favour. The European market is currently awash with PDA-style devices, many of which are operator branded, running Windows Mobile.
It’s amazingly rare to see anyone using one as their sole device. But then subsidies are generous, and Microsoft offers very generous licensing terms for new models – which explains why they enter and leave the market so quickly. So operators are happy to dangle them as a bait to lure people into experimenting with data services. I’ve met a few users who have one, and they tend to be professionals, but not technology geeks. Because these Windows PDAs are regarded as a bit of extra bling, and a bonus, this tends to temper criticism. So long as Microsoft can afford to keep flinging these anonymous gadgets at the market, people will become more accustomed to their data being in one device, and phone calls being in another. All of which suggests a long and healthy future for the dumbphone.
What’s missing from this list? Are these criticisms too harsh?
In the coming days we’ll review two of the most ambitious smartphones to see how well they fare – from Sony Ericsson and Nokia.
What has been surprising to this reporter this summer, has been getting acquainted (or reacquainted) with some of the most senior smartphone designers of the past decade, and discovering they too have returned to the dumbphone. Maybe one had found the secret when he told me:
“Old technology works best.”