The Mote In The Smartphone's Eye

Phones are dumb things. You lift them up, you talk to someone.

Phones are dumb things. You lift them up, you talk to someone. All the smarts are in the network, with vast banks of switches connecting every call, using arcane communications protocols. Now the smarts are in the devices, with a packet-switching network handling everything that the old circuit-switched services could - and much, much more as well.

Smartphones sound cooler, sound more intelligent, but the term is still limiting. It really doesn't describe the reality of today's devices - machines more powerful and with better screen resolutions than PCs just a few years old. They're not so much phones as pocket computers, like the devices from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's science fiction novel The Mote In God's Eye:

Rod Blaine scowled at the words flowing across the screen of his pocket computer. The physical data were current but everything else was obsolete. The rebels had changed even the name of their world, from New Chicago to Dame Liberty. Her government would have to be built all over again. Certainly she'd lose her delegates; she might even lose the right to an elected assembly.

He put the instrument away and looked down. They were over mountainous country, and he saw no signs of war. There hadn't been any area bombardments, thank God.

Niven's and Pournelle's devices are touch-screen communications computers, linked to a central set of machines via ubiquitous wireless communications. They're not machines to be taken apart, consisting of a a screen and several large integrated circuits. At one point in the story an alien engineer rebuilds a device, something that astounds the human characters who are more used to throwing away a broken machine and picking up a new one - rather like the way we treat our smartphones today.

I used to use a netbook as a bedside computer. It's recently been replaced by a smartphone, an HTC EVO 4G with a 4.5" screen. Now that it's running Android 2.2, it's a credible Internet browsing device with an HTML 5 capable browser with Flash support. It runs Java and native code applications, and that means it's got all the tools I need to live a connected computing life. There's no need to worry that Sprint's 4G network won't work in the UK - it's 802.11N wireless tablet now.

So when did it stop being a phone and become a tablet? After all, there's little difference between an iPod Touch and an iPad - so is it really a matter of size? Or are we living with today's Psions and just not calling them computers? When you look at the latest ARM processors, their systems-on-a-chip, with GPUs and multicore processors running at over a GHz - and they're not getting any slower or less complex.

Instead we want more, more power for communication, consumption and creation. We're using them as portals to the cloud, handling the general purpose computing tasks that drive our personal and business lives. When you think of it, they stopped being just phones a long time ago - back when the Treo mixed Palm PDA and phone, and when Microsoft folded its Pocket PCs into Windows Phones. The download-driven success Apple's AppStore was just the epitaph on the gravestone of the smartphone, and Google's Android showed how a mobile OS could scale from consumer device to enterprise and on to notebook PCs and interactive televisions.

So here's my modest proposal: Let's stop calling our pocket computers smartphones. Call them what they really are, and appreciate them for what they can do.

The smartphone is dead. Long live the pocket computer.

Simon Bisson

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