Reader Generated: The Smartphone Definition – Symbian the smartphone

| April 23, 2012 | 27 Replies

This is a comment from a reader, incognito’ on the subject of smartphone definition, in reply to the post last week about whether Symbian was a ‘smartphone’ or ‘smarterphone’. The discussion was very interesting (as it always seems to be when the comments are on topic 🙂  ) but this was worth highlighting.

Before we get onto that, let me also insert James Whatley’s comment to warm you up for Incognito’s:

Smartphone definition has changed so much over the years, depending on what year, what region and what country you’re in – the definition changes.

Back in the mid-to-late noughties, a smartphone in the UK was a phone that, very basically, could multi-task. Meanwhile, in the US, a smartphone was defined simply by any mobile phone with a full qwerty keypad.

Since then, the european way (of multi-tasking first) slowly adopted its way over and then, by rights, the original iPhone couldn’t really be classed as a smartphone!

Today though? Who actually cares?

The Smartphone Definition

The smartphone definition, if it ever existed, after the iPhone became a meaningless label. What was ‘smart’ about the first iPhone, it had less features and was less extensible than s40 phones, yet Apple added it a title of ‘smartphone’ and everybody agreed on it. Since then – smartphone usually means – more expensive than a feature phone, and nothing more than that. Not to repeat myself, I’ll just quote what I wrote at TMO on the subject whether the N9 is a smartphone or not, but it’s applicable to the Symbian line as well:


I think we’re long away from the clear distinction between a smartphone and a feature phone. The problem is that the term ‘smartphone’ never had a clear definition, instead manufacturers used it to justify steep prices and as a differentiators between their other line-ups, which is how we got to a point where everybody has his own idea of a smartphone.

Some might consider that what differs a smartphone from a feature phone is the original clear distinction – smartphone’s features could be extended by 3rd party apps, wherein featurephones were locked to the features bolted-in and delivered by the manufacturer with the device itself. However, that clear distinction quickly evaporated by introducing J2ME-capable featurephones where you could add third-party apps and extend the range of features delivered with the device itself. One might say that the original distinction implied native, close-to-hardware, `first class citizen` apps, not the ones based on some limited, virtualized extension API – but if that was the case, Android and WP based devices are not smartphones.

That was even further diluted by the introduction of the original iPhone which was touted to be a `smartphone` (and even a new term was coined – a superphone) yet it couldn’t run 3rd party apps at all. And out of box – it had less features than any $20 Chinese NokLa knock-off. That was in the same year when the N95 was advertised with ‘what computers have become’, had more features than today’s iPhones (or pretty much everything else), bar the touchscreen, had native 3rd party apps execution, had true multitasking, had OS-wide copy/paste, MMS support, had a rudimentary ‘app store’ (the Download app), had a good camera, had FFC (w/ video call), GPS, GPU, accelerometer, microSD slot, USB interface, TV-out… In pretty much every aspect it was a computer in the sea of abacuses… Still, while being one of the greatest successes of Nokia, your average Joe would look at the `shiny one` and say it was a smartphone and N95 was merely a featurephone. Feature-packed to the brim, but a featurephone nonetheless. The smartphone paradigm changed that year. Apple stole it and through the wonders of marketing they redefined the term.

After the 2007 I don’t think it’s even wise to separate devices in those two categories as the line has become so blurred that you can’t say with any credibility what a smartphone is and what isn’t. Even by the old, Apple-unaltered term. The N9 is as much of a smartphone as the iPhone 4S, SGSII, N8, N900 or the HTC Titan are. Can it do all the things those can? For the most part, yes. Can those devices do what the N9 can? For the most part, yes. So, what’s the difference? Heck, even the latest Asha lineup can fit easily into that list as well. Apart from certain HW aspects (hardware keyboard, big advanced camera module, Xenon flash, display resolution, HDMI out… which none of those covers completely), everything else is implemented in the software. So, technically, there’s no difference.

Nothing, and absolutely nothing stops you from having, to quote you: “3G video calls, SyncML support, (custom) profiles, USB OTG, flash in the browser, desktops with shortcuts and widgets, bookmark management in the browser, sub-folders for the application icons, voice dialling and voice commands, text2speech for messages/incoming calls, full nokia maps with navigation, upload files from browser, access file system in standard “save file” operation (let alone “open file”), etc.” on the N9 as well (except maybe USB-OTG). Or on any of the aforementioned devices as well. In fact, the N9 is at advantage here given that it’s running a proper GNU/Linux and has either hooks or full OSS stacks you can tap in to add all those features, whereas other platforms are either way too closed or designed in such a way that adding such features would require a complete OS rewrite. Therefore, the N9 is a smartphone – feature lacking, but smartphone nonetheless. Features can be added. On the N9 quite easily as well.

In an ideal world, you’d be able to install any OS you want on any device you like. I had hoped we’ll reach that state by now, but the device manufacturers don’t want to let their cash cow slip until they milk it completely.

To me, a smartphone is a hardware device with phone capabilities onto which you can put whatever software you desire, with enough oomph to run software that can fully exploit its hardware. A smartphone OS is the one which lets you use all of the hardware its installed on in any manner you please, which can be extended by 3rd party apps, allows you to multitask and doesn’t impose artificial restrictions. It doesn’t even need to have a file manager, or a browser for that matter as long as I can install one. It doesn’t even need to have ‘contacts app’ and ‘dialer’ built-in as long as you can acquire it from another channel, or write it yourself. Both, the N900 and the N9, are closer to that than pretty much any other device touted as a smartphone.

P.S. Arguing about whether something is or isn’t a smartphone is quite like arguing if there is or isn’t a god – you first need to define one in order to have any kind of sensible discussion.


So – I call bullcrap on the ‘smarter phone’ moniker attached to Symbian in the linked article. Symbian is as much of a smartphone as any of the devices I mentioned in the above quote


Category: Nokia, Symbian

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